Two male lions resting in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya (Washington State Photography).
Picture your children growing up watching The Lion King and wondering what the orange fuzzy creature on their screen is. Beholding the coronation of Simba with as much fantasy as Star Wars or The Teletubbies. Imagine having to suspend your disbelief every time a lowly traveler crosses a Savannah in a book or a dug-up encyclopedia from the basement talks about the cheetah, the tiger, the leopard.
While these seem like fantasies, experts predict they don’t have an expiration date. Over the past two decades, big cat populations in the Savannahs have persistently declined, despite increased UN and NGO involvement. Big cats are the largest in the feline family, and can be found in Savannahs around East Africa. Their decline can largely be attributed to the popularity of poaching, or the illicit hunting and sale of endangered species. Trophy hunting, which seeks to acquire large mammals for sport, harms big cat populations and their Savannahs. A single poached lion is worth thousands of dollars, and the US illegally imports 126,000 animal trophies per year. How long do we have until even the lion is just as fictional as the minotaur?
Overhunting in Savannahs has several effects on big cat populations, the largest being a decrease in the populations themselves. All big cat species except the African Lion are classified in CITES Appendix I: their sale is mostly illegal in international commercial trade. However, this has not stopped poachers and dealers from turning a profit. This means that most big cat species are now classified as “vulnerable,” and are susceptible to exploitation. Internationally, there are 8,000 tigers in captivity compared to 5,000 in the wild: evidently, the problem is global. Because Savannahs have decreased in area by 75% due to human activity, big cat populations continue to suffer. Cheetah numbers have especially dwindled with the predator having disappeared from 20 countries and only occupying 9% of its previous territory. Moreover, the once mighty West African lion, an inspiration for countless stories, nightmares and Nat Geo documentaries is at the “highest level of risk,” with populations decreasing to 32,000 from 100,000 in the last 50 years. Once our mighty opponents, these beasts of prey are now in danger of extinction.
Another symptom of cutting big cats from Savannas is the adverse effects on the ecosystem. Once upon a time, everything the light touched was ours. Nowadays, carbon emissions, drought and heavy grazing have shaved the Savannah to a shell of its former self. Desertification affects over 46,000 km2 of Savannah per year, or 8.6 million football fields. The careful balance necessary to preserve the ecosystem is turning to dust thanks to unrestricted human involvement. Being key predators in the food chain, the loss of big cats thus threatens to upset entire biomes and affect other populations of endangered animals. All big cats are tertiary consumers, meaning they stand at the highest level of the food chain and emit the most energy. This energy is harnessed by decomposers and saprotrophs such as earthworms and bacteria, which produces nutrients for plants to survive. Because big cat species sustain an interconnected web of organisms in the Savannah, their extinction would mean the eradication of the entire habitat. This is already occurring with the emergence of “empty savanna syndrome,” in which an ecosystem is inverted due to the absence of large mammals. This results in the decline of primary and secondary consumers such as Zebras and Giraffes, as big cats regulate the populations of herbivores through hunting. Consequently, it is wrong to assume that killing one cheetah will affect only the cheetah, an error made by poachers and policy makers alike. Because of the high profit generated by the animal trafficking industry, many instead choose to ignore the far-reaching consequences of their actions: this explains why big cat populations continue to decrease.
The important question to ask is whether Simba can be saved. This is how awareness is generated, first by reflecting and considering the implications of the facts, secondly by taking action. Though the last word rests in the hands of policy makers, supporting animal rights associations including WWF, Panthera and the Big Cat Initiative can have great impact when properly coupled with awareness campaigns. Communities such as the Maasai Steppe in Tanzania have already proven it is possible to recover our relationship with the savanna: the last step is to reach beyond small communities and spread the lion’s roar. When apex predator becomes prey, the king can either stand back or bear his sword.
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