Think about this: We have lost 95% of the world’s wild tigers in the past century. During that time, lion populations have crashed 40% — in just three generations. That’s just one reason why, this year, World Wildlife Day (Saturday) is focusing on the plight facing the world’s #BigCats.
It’s the reason South Africa-born husband-and-wife naturalist team Beverly Joubert and Dereck Joubert have made big-cat conservation their life’s calling, and why they were instrumental in founding National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative in 2009. (https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/big-cats-initiative/about/)
This may sound obvious to anyone who’s thought about the implications — long-term and short-term — of overpopulation, climate change and rampant consumption, but to hear Dereck and Beverly Joubert tell it, it’s not obvious at all to ordinary, everyday people who are too busy feeding their families and keeping a roof over their heads to worry about whether lions will go the way of the Tasmanian tiger and sabre-toothed cat. Historically, the Tasmanian tiger — once found throughout the continent of Australia — became extinct on the mainland some 3,000 years ago. The last known Tasmanian tiger died at Australia’s Hobart Zoo in 1936; the species was declared extinct in 1982.
Unless something is done, and done quickly, the Jouberts told a rapt audience several years ago at a meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif., iconic apex predators like the lion, tiger, jaguar, puma, cheetah and leopard could vanish by mid-century.
“We’ve been studying and looking at big cats now for about 30 years,” Dereck Joubert told reporters at a meeting sponsored by National Geographic’s NatGeoWild digital channel, “and one of the alarming things for us, which was the genesis of (this project) actually, was the realization that, in our lifetimes, lions have dropped from 450,000 down to 20,000, and leopard numbers are from 700,000 down to about 50,000. If you take an extension of that curve, you will imagine these big cats to be extinct within the next 10 or 15 years.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time. But now is the time to bring it to wider attention.”
As World Wildlife Day dawns, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is anxious to put a familiar face on wildlife conservation efforts around the world. It isn’t just to do with lions, of course, but lions are an emblematic symbol that almost anyone can recognize, from the youngest child to the most jaded, cynical adult.
“What’s important ultimately, and what's going to help us with the Big Cats Initiative, is getting the message out,” Beverly Joubert said. “A lot of people don't believe there is even a problem, so they say, ‘Why should we worry?’ Through the Big Cats Initiative, we've managed to raise money for cheetahs, for example, so we will have a lot of cheetah programs out there. We're not only looking at lions and leopards.
“Big cats are the iconic species. They’re the apex predator. If the apex predator is taken out of the system, the whole system collapses. We need the apex predators we can maintain corridors for elephants, for antelope, for the tiny little dung beetles. Everything is connected. It’s vitally important.”
Apologists for the hunting industry often argue that hunting is vital economically for species survival.
Balderdash, Dereck Joubert scoffs — though he’s inclined to use a stronger modifier.
“We are very, very adamant about hunting. This is all about ego. They call it recreational hunting, as if we could also be talking about playing tennis. Some people go out and take some great delight in the killing of these animals. Five hundred lion skins — lions in dead form — come into the United States every year as hunting trophies and safari trophies. With 20,000 lions left, you know that's not sustainable.”
Learning endangered species’ day-to-day life habits is key to ensuring its long-term survival, Beverly Joubert added. That’s part of what the Big Cats Initiative is all about and, in the bigger picture, World Wildlife Day itself.
“We want to be able to look at that unique behaviour right now and see how we can utilize what has happened in the past and where we are in the present and use that to give us a better idea of what’s going to happen in the future,” she said. “It’s looking at the plight of these cats, learning from it and applying those lessons to the future, whether it’s to do with hunting and poaching or just protecting these wildlife corridors.”
World Wildlife Day could just as easily be about the dung beetle or leopard tortoise, Dereck Joubert believes.
“There are a number of great iconic species, and I think it’s our job to pick them and highlight them. The conservation that goes on around these other species is just as valid, but you gotta pick the cheerleaders.
“Also, we have a lot more fun filming lions that dung beetles,” he said.
“But we still film those dung beetles,” Beverly Joubert chimed in.
They’re all connected.
Except where noted otherwise, the images in this post were taken by Beverly Joubert in association with National Geographic/Big Cats Initiative. World Wildlife Day is Sat., March 3. #PredatorsUnderThreat #WWD2018 #BigCats