Has the wildlife ‘Red List’ let Africa’s big cats down?

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Paris (AFP)

Lions and cheetahs are closer to extinction than the relevant Red List of Endangered Species suggests, according to conservationists, who warn that sharp population declines could go undetected.

Africa’s marquee big cats are currently classified as “Endangered” but with lion numbers falling near the threshold for a higher risk category and heated debate over how many cheetahs actually live in the wild, experts are asking if that’s enough.

“Uplisting” doesn’t guarantee protection, they say, but it would more accurately reflect their dire situation and could channel resources to help them survive in the wild, where they are most recently threatened by poaching and pet trafficking.

The stone lions guarding Beijing’s Forbidden City, the bronze lions at Admiral Nelson’s feet in Trafalgar Square, the constellation Leo and the emblems of numerous top European football clubs bear witness to the cultural significance of these majestic creatures.

But as top predators, they are also pivotal points in their ecosystems – as the South African conservationist Paul Funston puts it, the “great father who keeps many things in place”.

For half a century, the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified species on a spectrum from “least of concern” and “near threatened” to “endangered”, “endangered”, “critically endangered” and “extinct”. in the wilderness”.

If at least half the population of a species is lost within three generations, it is shifted to a more threatened category.

The last stop on the slide into oblivion is “extinct”.

A threatened status can trigger national safeguards, restrictions on international trade, and funding from states or NGOs.

Lions and cheetahs were both re-confirmed as “Endangered” in 2014 and are unlikely to change categories in an update to the Red List at the IUCN Congress in Marseille from Friday.

However, some experts want the IUCN to go further.

“Cheetahs should be classified as endangered,” Sarah Durant, cheetah expert and member of the IUCN’s group of cats specialists, told AFP via Zoom.

Following the 2014 assessment, to which she contributed, Durant and 50 other conservation experts presented this case in a peer-reviewed study.

Uniform IUCN criteria would not do justice to all species.

– Catastrophic declines –

Overall, it has been estimated that the global number of cheetahs has decreased by about 30 percent to about 7,000 in three generations or 15 years.

To put this in perspective, the ratio of humans to cheetahs on earth is roughly a million to one.

The decline was steep, but still well below the 50 percent threshold for upgrading to “at risk”.

But that estimate is probably overly optimistic, say scientists, since the data mostly comes from protected areas such as national parks and game reserves, even though most cheetahs are not found there.

Roughly three-quarters of the big cat’s range – and an estimated two-thirds of its population – are in unprotected areas, where the lone cat struggles with scarce prey, fragmented habitat, and deadly encounters with shepherds defending their livestock.

“We’re measuring population decline in the area where they’re actually doing best,” said Durant.

In the long term, the picture looks even bleak.

The cheetah once roamed most of Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India as the top predator, but now occupies less than 10 percent of its historical range JOE KLAMAR AFP / FILE

The cheetah was once a top predator in most of Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India, but today it only occupies a fraction – less than 10 percent – of its historical range.

And since 1900, their number has decreased by more than 90 percent.

“These are catastrophic declines,” said Durant, professor of conservation science at the Zoological Society of London.

Lions have fared no better even when their wild population exceeds 20,000, said Funston, senior director of the lion program at conservation NGO Panthera.

The 2014 assessment he contributed to found their world population declined 43 percent over three generations – 21 years – with a reclassification threshold a hair missing.

– Hunted –

In contrast to cheetahs, lions live in groups or packs and almost exclusively in protected areas.

However, that doesn’t mean they are always easy to find.

“Every time we look at a detail, we find that there are fewer lions than we thought, usually three, four or even ten times fewer,” Funston told AFP.

In 2017, Funston conducted an intensive survey of two large national parks in southeastern Angola, where conservation authorities estimated the population to be around 1,000.

Industrial-scale bushmeat poaching has freed parts of the African savannah from big cats and their prey

Industrial-scale bushmeat poaching has freed parts of the African savannah from big cats and their prey TONY KARUMBA AFP / FILE

“The actual numbers were so low that we couldn’t make a proper scientific guess,” he said.

“We concluded that there were 10 to 30 lions left.”

The main reason for the decline in the number of lions is the industrial-scale poaching of bushmeat, either by the lions themselves or their prey.

Trophy hunting, loss of habitat and conflicts with humans also threaten animals.

– ‘Influence’ effect –

New threats have surfaced since 2014.

“In southern Africa in particular, we are suddenly seeing an increase in lion poaching for body parts” – particularly teeth, claws and bones – to supply a booming market in Southeast Asia and China for counterfeit health and masculinity elixirs, “said Funston.

This trafficking was driven by South Africa’s decade-old and controversial commercial lion-raising industry, according to a recent report he co-authored.

From 2011 to 2019, poaching for body parts – recognizable by the dismembered carcasses left behind – accounted for more than 60 percent of total lion mortality in Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, with a significant increase from 2014.

For cheetahs, the new threat comes from the Gulf States, where the demand for pets has fueled a lively trade in young, particularly from the Horn of Africa, where a subspecies is critically endangered.

Demand in the Gulf States is driving the illegal trade in baby cheetahs and lions

Demand in the Gulf States is driving the illegal trade in baby cheetahs and lions Delil SOULEIMAN AFP / file

Social networks are also driving demand for living big cats.

“Influencers are flying out of Dubai to be photographed with a cheetah or lion to drive Instagram traffic,” said Durant, highlighting a recent reveal from the Bellingcat website.

Investment is a key to protection.

In Central and West Africa, according to Funston, spending is only around 50 to 100 US dollars per square kilometer annually.

No wonder, he said, that both regions have lost more than 90 percent of their large wildlife.

In southern Africa, on the other hand, where lion populations have increased, $ 500 to $ 800 per square kilometer is invested annually.

Craig Hilton-Taylor, who heads the IUCN Red List, defended his classification process as “robust” and said experts had looked at a number of issues.

But he admitted that without the efforts of South African countries, “the lion would have been upgraded from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered'”.

“If the experts do the assessment again and look ahead instead of just looking back, they can potentially cross the threshold,” he told AFP.