Why Big Cats matter for biodiversity and climate - Hindustan Times
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Why Big Cats matter for biodiversity and climate

Jun 08, 2024 11:49 PM IST

By protecting big cats, we don’t just save these predators but also safeguard the intricate web of biodiversity within their ecosystems

Imagine having the ability to sleep out in the open at minus 40 degrees and jump 50 feet over steep cliffs, or run at 120 kilometres per hour in searing heat across open grasslands. Meet the snow leopard, inhabiting the mountains in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, and the cheetah, the fastest animal on land. Big cats are known for their formidable presence in a wide range of ecosystems. This group includes seven species: the tiger, lion, leopard, snow leopard, puma, jaguar, and cheetah, spread across 95 countries. They inhabit a diverse range of landscapes including grasslands, savannas, rainforests, mangroves, mountains and deserts.

Meet the snow leopard, inhabiting the mountains in some of the harshest conditions on the planet (HT) PREMIUM
Meet the snow leopard, inhabiting the mountains in some of the harshest conditions on the planet (HT)

As “apex predators”, their hunting keeps herbivore populations in check, keeping ecosystems healthy. Tigers prey on deer and wild boar, preventing them from overeating fruits and nuts, which are crucial for seed dispersal and forest regeneration. Lions, cheetahs and snow leopards hunt in landscapes with sparse vegetation, ensuring the survival of the limited plant and smaller animal species that can survive in harsh environments.

Big cats also play a vital role in fighting the climate crisis. Ecosystems like forests, grasslands and mangroves are important carbon sinks. These areas store carbon in the form of biomass and also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which helps control global warming. By keeping these ecosystems healthy, big cats ensure their optimum capacity to store carbon.

Their roar and purr reverberates across our economies as well. It is estimated that nearly half of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or $44 trillion, depends on nature. Sectors like agriculture, food and beverages, and construction that rely on direct extraction of natural resources or the provision of ecosystem services such as healthy soils, clean water and pollination need thriving biodiversity, which depends on big cats, “keystone species” whose populations are an important indicator of the health of their entire habitats.

Local communities around the world have a close relationship with big cat habitats and species themselves. Tourism is a major draw, with big cat safaris generating revenue through park fees, accommodation, guides and other ancillary activities. Artisans benefit by selling souvenirs featuring these animals. Beyond tourism, big cat's presence can indirectly support livelihoods through non-timber forest products. Healthy ecosystems, maintained by big cats, can provide communities with essential resources like medicinal plants besides benefits from carbon sequestration.

Today, their survival creatures are threatened by habitat loss, poaching, illegal trade in wildlife and human-wildlife conflict, leading to a significant decline in big cat populations, with many species on the brink of extinction. Six out of the seven big cat species are classified as either endangered, near endangered or vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.

Global cooperation is imperative to reverse this alarming trend. It allows for the creation of transboundary conservation zones, ensuring safe corridors for big cat movement and minimising habitat fragmentation. Sharing knowledge and expertise is another crucial aspect. Countries with successful conservation programmes can guide others, sharing best practices in areas like monitoring, habitat restoration, community engagement and resource mobilisation among others.

India, home to five of the seven big cat species, has been continually setting new benchmarks in their conservation. Project Tiger, which completed 50 years in 2023, revived the population of the Royal Bengal Tiger from around 1,411 in 2006 to more than 3,600 today. The success of the initiative is reflected in the fact that India is now home to more than 70% of the total wild tiger population in the world. Through Project Cheetah, India set another milestone with the world’s first inter-continental carnivore translocation, working to revive the population of cheetahs which went extinct in the country in 1952. In two years, the project has achieved four out of its six short-term success criteria including survival of translocated animals, establishment of home ranges and contribution to community livelihoods.

Building on the success of such initiatives, India has launched the International Big Cat Alliance (IBCA) to create a global network on big cat conservation, bringing together the 96 range countries as well as non-range countries, conservation organisations, research institutions, private sector, civil society and local communities.

The forum will serve as a platform to catalyse technical and financial cooperation, resource mobilisation and project implementation across borders. As the majority of the big cat countries belong to the Global South, it will add an important facet to the South-South Cooperation agenda, especially in areas like research and technology transfer, capacity building, joint patrolling and transboundary conservation areas.

UNDP has been actively working with the government towards big cat conservation, leveraging community participation, nature-based livelihoods and technology to demonstrate innovative pilots that can be adapted and scaled within the country and globally. The SECURE Himalaya initiative in partnership with the Global Environment Facility supported the first-ever scientific estimation of the snow leopard population in the country, training scientists and community volunteers to undertake this exercise. Models for habitat restoration and community-driven ecotourism are being implemented in tiger and leopard landscapes that can be replicated across other big cat landscapes.

By protecting big cats, we don’t just save these predators but also safeguard the intricate web of biodiversity within their ecosystems, ensuring the survival of countless other species and maintaining a healthy balance in the natural world.

Caitlin Wiesen is former resident representative a.i., UNDP India, and SP Yadav is director general (Interim), International Big Cat Alliance. The views expressed are personal.

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