Persecution and Hunting
Wild Cats While it may be difficult for most Americans to think of the regal Cheetah as vermin, in the southern African country of Namibia, cattle ranchers treat these endangered and beautiful cats as enemies, trapping and shooting, and even poisoning them. White South Africans have acquired huge landholdings to raise cattle at the expense of the environment in this arid land, fencing off large sections from native wildlife. The majority of Namibian ranchers lack compassion or respect for this graceful cat and, without any compunction, kill females, young kittens and any adult Cheetah on their properties, whether or not the animals pose a threat to their livestock. One rancher told American conservationist Laurie Marker, who is seeking to reverse this trend, that he personally had killed 160 Cheetahs on his property. Marker has taken on the daunting task of trying to convince ranchers of the importance of protecting these endangered cats.
Cheetahs are the world's fastest land animal, reaching 70 miles per hour in pursuit of gazelles, foals of large ungulates, such as zebra and, occasionally, smaller mammals, such as hares. For hundreds of thousands of years, they have adapted to changes in the environment of their once vast range, and are superbly designed as predators. In the North American Pleistocene, more than 10,000 years ago, a cheetah-like cat ranged over the continent, preying on the Pronghorn, the world's fastest hoofed animal. This cat became extinct, perhaps as a result of hunting by Pleistocene hunters.
Prior to the 20th century, Cheetahs remained common in savannah habitats south of the Sahara, and in 1900, their population may have totaled 100,000 animals. Since then, a steady decline in their populations and a shrinking of their range have placed them in endangered status. Cheetahs underwent a dramatic decline in the 1960s when spotted cat fur became fashionable. US imports were stopped when the species was listed on the US Endangered Species Act in the late 1960s, and commercial international trade became illegal when Cheetahs were included on Appendix I of CITES in the early 1970s. Killing them for the fur trade devastated their populations because they are distributed so sparsely over their range--even a kill of a few thousand in each country endangered them. Added to this, they have endured persecution by livestock herders and ranch owners, combined with loss of savannah habitat and their prey species. In areas where there are large populations of Lion and hyena, adult Cheetahs and their cubs are preyed upon by the latter predators, who also steal their kills (Hunter 1998). Trophy hunting also has taken a toll on these cats.
By the early 1970s, they numbered only 15,000, according to Peter Jackson, head of the Cat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (Newman 1997). Cheetah biologist Luke Hunter (1998) estimates their total population today at a maximum of 12,000 animals, with safe populations in only five or six of the 26 countries where they may be present. In parts of southern Africa, Cheetahs were numerous until a few decades ago when white ranchers fenced off thousands of square miles of grassland. Within these ranches, which cover much of the land area in Namibia and Botswana, landowners killed off predators as well as native ungulates. The once abundant wildebeests, zebras, oryx, gazelles and antelope that migrated in the hundreds of thousands in this region became reduced to scattered numbers.
Namibia, with its arid, open habitat, still has about 2,500 Cheetahs, perhaps the largest population in Africa, but at the present rate of killing by ranchers, they will be extinct there within a decade. In the 1980s, 1,000 Cheetahs were killed by ranchers, and the Namibian Cheetah population dropped about 50 percent between 1984 and 1994 (Schick 1994).
A 1997 PBS television special, “In the Wild,” featured actress Holly Hunter traveling to southern Africa in search of Cheetahs. A visit to Namibia's Etosha National Park, where these cats were once fairly common, failed to find a single Cheetah, in spite of expert help from native Bushmen trackers. An outbreak of Anthrax, spread by domestic livestock, had recently occurred in the park. Some 20 Cheetahs had died, and the disease also killed elephants and other wildlife.
Marker co-founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund in 1990, and since it has been in operation, it has changed many ranchers from Cheetah-haters to Cheetah-protectors. Few knew of the Cheetah's worldwide plight, and many cooperated when informed. One successful strategy to protect livestock introduced by Marker has been the use of donkeys to guard cattle herds. These animals easily fend off Cheetahs with their powerful kicking hooves (Schick 1994). Baboons have also been trained to guard livestock because of their aggression toward Cheetahs (Schick 1994). Recommendations such as bringing cows closer to homesteads during calving season have also been made to ranchers (Schick 1994). Many ranchers did not realize that Cheetahs prey on livestock only when their own natural prey, primarily gazelles and Impalas, have become scarce because of killing or fencing by the ranchers (Schick 1994).
Within the past few years, many ranchers have been convinced to use box traps to capture Cheetahs unharmed instead of killing these cats. Marker ear-tags the animals and returns them to local protected areas (Schick 1994), or arranges to have them moved. In the early 1990s alone, 75 Cheetahs were removed from ranches where they were being persecuted and were introduced into other areas. One farmer caught a female with five cubs and wanted to keep the cubs as pets. Marker convinced him to give up the female and four of her cubs, but he insisted on keeping the largest one. Although keeping Cheetahs as pets is not good for their welfare or conservation, it is an improvement over their wholesale destruction. Leghold traps are used by some ranchers, and in 1996 Marker acquired two 3-week-old Cheetah cubs whose mother had been killed in one of these traps. They will have to remain in captivity because of their young age when orphaned.
An organization known as Africat has sponsored the capture and transport of 100 wild Namibian Cheetahs to South Africa. This organization reports that ranchers capturing Cheetahs in large box traps often sell them to breeders rather than reintroduction programs, a practice that it does not condone. Translocating adult Namibian Cheetahs to South African reserves where they had become extinct has been very successful. In one case in 1995, three males were released in Madikwe Game Reserve where four other Namibian Cheetahs had been introduced in 1994, and all survived. A male, four females and five cubs were released in Pilanesburg National Park in 1995, and there were no fatalities (Oryx 1996). Most of South Africa's Cheetahs were eliminated by Boers in the 19th century, and the government is now returning them to their original range within national parks. Outside of national parks, they may be in as great danger as the Cheetahs further north.
Lions have continued to decrease in Africa south of the Sahara from a variety of factors, of which persecution by livestock raisers is a major one. Outside of national parks, these big cats have become rare or absent, and in 1996, the species was first listed by the IUCN as Vulnerable. The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species also classified the African Lion as Vulnerable. They disappeared long ago from areas with scarce ungulate populations and large numbers of herdspeople who persecuted them, such as the arid regions of southern Africa and the sub-Saharan. In recent years, they have declined throughout the continent. Outside of parks, the Maasai and other tribes with livestock herds routinely kill Lions and other predators to protect their cattle (Hunter 1998). Lions are particularly vulnerable to persecution and hunting because, like wolves, they hunt in groups. When persecuted, they may not be able to survive hunting alone or in pairs.
Some parks are not large enough to maintain healthy Lion populations, and when they leave parks to wander in search of prey, they are often killed by ranchers or hunters. In the southern African country of Namibia, for example, the 300-mile-long, 25-mile-wide Skeleton Coast National Park skirts the Atlantic coast. Two filmmakers, Jen and Des Bartlett, chronicled the disappearance of Lions from the park. A small population of Lions inhabited the park in the early 1990s, and one pair was radio-collared by park rangers. Shortly thereafter, both Lions were shot dead by livestock herders when the Lions left the park. The Bartletts had known the female for five years, and she was pregnant with four cubs when shot. The killing of Lions to protect livestock is legal in Namibia, and with the death of the last specimen in the park, an elderly and emaciated animal shown in their National Geographic Society film, “Survivors of the Skeleton Coast,” these great cats are now extinct in the area.
Wild cats have been hunted heavily and killed off throughout the Middle East. Leopards (Panthera pardus) still persist in small pockets, escaping detection with nocturnal hunting, and hiding in rock crevasses and trees during the day. As a general rule, wherever Leopards are seen in the Middle East, they are shot or poisoned as potential threats to the ubiquitous sheep and goats. In a few areas, such as remote portions of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, Leopards are protected in national parks. These Leopards are very adaptable in their prey and can subsist on small animals, such as hares--unlike the Lion, which requires larger prey.
Eight subspecies of Leopards are listed on the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, all in Endangered or Critical categories. They range from North Africa across Asia to Java, Indonesia. Races such as the South Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen; North Persian (P.p.saxicolor) of Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan; and the Anatolian Leopard (P.p.tulliana) of Turkey, have populations so small that they may become inbred and disappear within a few decades. The South Arabian Leopard is the focus of a conservation program organized by officials and conservationists from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Only 100 to 200 of these cats survive, and they continue to be persecuted by livestock owners and hunters (Oryx 1996). The "Leopard Group of Arabia" was formed in 1995, and each country will prepare a plan for conservation of the Leopard, review its own wildlife legislation, conduct surveys, and make proposals for protected areas (Oryx 1996). This group is also working to increase populations of native prey, reduce livestock numbers in the Leopards’ habitat, and conduct public education programs (Oryx 1996).
Snow Leopards (Panthera uncia), native to the mountains of Asia, from Pakistan east to China, are endangered from hunting for pelts and as trophies, and by persecution from herdsmen who kill them as a threat to their livestock. Their total population may be as low as 4,500 or as high as 7,500 (Sunquist 1997). In their stark, rocky and high desert habitats, these cats prey upon wild sheep, goats, deer and marmots (Sunquist 1997). Their original range stretched for 4,000 miles and encompassed 1.2 million square miles in a wide arc, curving from east to west in the Himalayas through former Soviet Republics, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Mongolia to China, including a total of twelve countries (Baillie and Groombridge 1996). They have disappeared from vast areas within this region, however, and continue to decline.
Until the 20th century, few herdspeople roamed these remote and forbidding regions, and Snow Leopards and their prey were left unmolested in most areas. In the past 50 years, however, human populations have risen dramatically. In western China, the government has used subsidies to encourage settlement of the western steppe, and large numbers of people have entered previously uninhabited areas with their livestock. In western Nepal, villages now dot the Himalayan slopes at 9,800 feet, and people scratch out a living from meager potato, barley and wheat crops (Sunquist 1997). Each household has only a few sheep and goats and cannot afford to lose even one to predators (Sunquist 1997).
Some 1 million Mongolian herders subsist in a barren landscape, dependent on their yaks, goats and sheep. These people, whose livestock compete with wildlife for the scarce grasses, also hunt native animals which the Snow Leopard needs to survive--Blue Sheep, ibex, deer and others. Even marmots are killed in very large numbers for their meat and skins (Sunquist 1997). When their natural prey disappears, and Snow Leopards begin to prey on livestock, herders poison, trap or shoot these cats in retaliation. In many areas, herders kill Snow Leopards as a potential threat, even when they have not lost livestock, in order to sell their valuable pelts.
Dr. George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society has conducted studies on the diet of Snow Leopards and, in most areas, found less than 5 percent of livestock in their diet, based on feces analyses (Schaller 1998). As numbers of livestock in the Snow Leopard's range rise and herders penetrate further into the mountains and high pastures, livestock losses occur that sometimes result in extermination campaigns (Schaller 1998). Herding practices in these areas often encourage predation by Snow Leopards, with sheep and goats, and mares with their foals left unguarded (Schaller 1998). Depletion of their prey has increased in recent years, with government policies that encourage marmot hunting, pika poisoning and, until the late 1980s, Blue Sheep market hunting (Schaller 1998).
In Tibet, Dr. Schaller has arranged with local herdspeople to pay them for any losses they incur to Snow Leopard predation, and he has hired local Tibetans to assist in field studies of these cats, giving them a financial incentive to protect the cats. Likewise, in Pakistan, a new program organized by an American conservationist, Helen Freeman, founder of the Seattle-based International Snow Leopard Trust, has sponsored some 90 projects for the species, including many field studies. Its web page (www.snowleopard.org/islt) follows the movements of radio-tracked Snow Leopards. Gary Larson, the popular Far Side cartoonist, created a Snow Leopard design for the organization to use on its shirts (Sunquist 1997). Grade-schoolers all over the country have raised money by selling T-shirts for the International Snow Leopard Trust. In 1988, through the education programs and compensation for livestock losses conducted by this organization, a Pakistani livestock owner trapped a young Snow Leopard found preying on livestock, contacted the government and, before news crews, set it free. In the past, it would have been killed routinely.
The International Snow Leopard Trust and the Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment are providing tea, noodles and clothing to livestock grazers in Snow Leopard territory in the Altay Mountains of Mongolia, with the understanding that they will protect wildlife (Schaller 1998). One village requested children's clothing, flour, candles, soap and tea, and these requests were filled (Sunquist 1997). The concept of involving local people in the conservation of wildlife is extremely important and, wherever practiced, has had beneficial long-term results for all concerned.