'We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. There was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and the mountains. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise, but after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view'. - Adrew Leopold
Apex predators - those animals that are not preyed upon as healthy adults in the wild, and that must at least partially, depend on capturing live prey to survive aren't just critical links, but the all-important lynch pins of any healthy environment. While we are trying, but only beginning to understand their vital and necessary roles, the world's top predators are being killed off at alarming rates; making the negative effects of their increasingly conspicuous absence a concept that's all too easily understood in the cumulative effects we're now seeing.
Photograph by Beverly Joubert
I recently realized that spending so much time in marine-related activities and causes has resulted in a regretful disassociation for me. Fortunately, a piece on NationalGeographic.com about the decline of big cat populations brought me back to dry earth, reminding me of the connected totality of the planet's wildlife and ecosystems. Just like sharks, their terrestrial counterparts -- big cats like lions, tigers and cheetahs are a bellwether for the overall health of their respective ecosystems.
Perhaps, due to their heightened pop culture status, many are aware of the trending decline of global shark populations and some species' reduction in numbers to an estimated 20% of what they were only a few decades ago. By startling comparison, and according to the Big Cat Initiative (launched by the National Geographic Society), lion populations are currently estimated at an anemic 1.7% of what they were in the 1800's. Sure, that sounds like a long time ago, but as is the case with sharks, it's no excuse for apathy. These declines are not passing fads, but mathematically quantifiable trends, and the cause is a familiar one with the loss of any apex predator. To quote NatGeo, 'Lions are victims of habitat loss and degradation as well as conflicts with humans'. In more ways than one, I don't see 'conflicts with humans' being unfairly succinct as a causative statement.
Cause and effect. We've identified the cause and we're no doubt seeing the effective decline of these top predators and their habitats. A problem, once identified, doesn't deserve any further attention or effort that robs either from its solution. Sharks, lions, tigers, bears, wolves -- In the grand scheme of conservation and sustainable policy and practices, none is more important than the other. Taking action is, however, of the utmost importance. Whichever, wherever, however, and with whomever, pick a worthy cause, and roll up your sleeves, but do so with a laser-like focus on effecting a real, measurable and lasting reversal of spiraling trends like those mentioned here.
For one of the most graphic representations I've seen depicting species decline, check out this interactive Lion Population Decline Map and more info about the Big Cat Inititiative. If you or someone you know is involved in related research, education, new technology, and other efforts, direct applications for grants are also being accepted by the initiative.