Lets get something cleared up right away. There are no wild big cats in the United States. Big cats are a specific species of felines classified under the genus Panthera , which include tigers, lion, jaguars and leopards. They are classified under this genus because they are the only felines with the capacity to roar. North America is known for the Mountain Lion (also known as the cougar, puma, and panther), however despite the size of this feline it is under the genus Puma and not a big cat. The historic American Lion is now extinct and currently there are no wild big cats in the United States, other than a few individual jaguars caught on wildlife trail cams near the Mexican border.
Big cat conservation is what we call a wicked, complex problem. But what does that term even mean? First, there is a difference between complex and complicated; complicated problems have many static factors that follow a predictable pattern, whereas complex problems can have predictable patterns, but often have dynamic and interconnected factors. Health care in the US is a complex problem; it has predictable patterns, but the economy, President, and advances in medical advances are constantly changing-making a single solution difficult. A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve due four reasons: 1) incomplete knowledge, 2) the number of people and opinions involved, 3) socioeconomic factors, and 4) the interconnectedness of the problem with other problems.
Global challenges such as endangered species, climate change, poverty, health, education, food insecurity, and population growth are all wicked, complex problems and directly connected to big cat conservation. All tiger subspecies, half of the leopards, and the Asiatic Lion are endangered species. Because they are apex predators, so if they become extinct they would cause a surplus of herbivores. First this would increase CO2 released in gas output (farts), while simultaneously depleting vegetation that are actually storage places for carbon (more carbon into the atmosphere). Eventually, vanishing of an apex predator will cause a trophic cascade where the entire ecosystem disappears. This would have effect on the buffer zones between two ecosystems, and then to the surrounding ecosystems. Everything that has been so far discuss leads to the impact on climate change.
Poverty, health, food insecurity, education, and population growth are easiest to understand. Big cats reside in developing countries and poor people are more concerned about putting food on the table each night than they are about long term effects of extinction and climate change. This is an example of Maslow’ Hierarchy of Needs, where the ideas of conservation and sustainability cannot be considered without achieving physiological needs first. When you have grown up with food insecurity and a lack of education, it is a very easy decision to be more concerned with farming on big cat habitat, or even poaching them, to put dinner on the table. Habitat loss is a major concern for big cats as well, which is a direct result of population growth.
Based on the concepts of this wicked, complex problem the best way to solve big cat conservation is the bottom-up method, rather than the top-down. This means that if we solved the social challenges in areas native to big cats, we would have a larger and more sustainable impact on conservation.
But what do big cats really need from you as an activist in the US? The seas of southwest Asia are home to two tiger species, the Malaysian and Sumatran (and once the now extinct Javan). Both subspecies population declines are due to habitat loss and poaching. At first glance, one may assume that these tigers have similar conservation problems that require the implementation of the same solution. However, the primary cause of Sumatran tiger decline is habitat loss due to palm oil , while the major cause of the Malaysian tiger decline is poaching and illegal wildlife trade. This makes the approach to conservation two different strategies in their entirety. Therefore, you CANNOT solve tiger conservation in Sumatra the same as you would in Malaysia. Conclusively, different locations result in differences of socioeconomic factors effecting tiger population decline. This is an example of what makes problem both wicked and complex.
The major threats to big cats in Africa are people related: habitat loss through agriculture, poaching and diseases transfer from livestock species. It has also become so wicked, complex that scientists cannot unify under one single approach for the whole continent. For example, trophy hunting actually has a positive cost-benefit for conservation in South Africa. Because the South African government and economy is stable, the revenue generated from trophy hunting can positively contribute to conservation without effecting wildlife populations. On the contrary, in Tanzania where wildlife populations and social infrastructure are unstable, there is a negative cost-benefit for trophy hunting. Please take a second to notice that the author is the same for both of the cost benefit analyses for trophy hunting. By using an quantitative analysis rather than emotional biases, it was demonstrated by the very same individual that trophy hunting is good in some areas, but not in others. Right here in the United States, the hunters of New York not only fund the state's Department of Conservation, but help to control deer populations because we've exterminated all natural predators.
So, there are many different conservation approaches for big cats in Africa because wicked, complex problems are location and socioeconomic specific. One of these approaches is the hands-on method, where conservationists attempt to bridge the gap between man and beast. In South Africa, a major threat to lions is shooting them during livestock human-wildlife conflicts. Local farmers and villager view lions as a nuisance and/or fear them. The challenges of living with lions was a common topic of conversation among the local people during our organizations research visit to Kruger Park, South Africa. Most organizations using the hands-on approach cause more harm than good, using the technique as a profit gimmick with none of the proceeds allocated towards conservation. You should always investigate an organizations credibility before giving them your money.
The Lion Whisperer Kevin Richardson is known worldwide for his effective use of the hands-on approach. He rescues lions from private ownership, circuses, and roadside zoos, providing them with a lifelong home at his sanctuary. Kevin spends his days becoming accepted as a member of various prides within his sanctuary. He does this for two important reasons. First, his intimate bonds with the animals allows for him to have the best understanding of their psychological needs. Most of these animals come from situations of abuse, and remember that welfare includes the physical and mental well-being of animals. Secondly, Kevin is using this technique to demonstrate to the people of South Africa that lions are not the ferocious beasts that they have grown to fear through human-wildlife conflict.
The biggest problem in the United States for big cats is the exotic pet trade. This includes roadside zoos, cub petting events and photo opportunities, the entertainment business (which includes circuses and attractions), and private ownership. Any organization that is not a part of the globally recognized Species Survival Plan is not breeding cats to reintroduce them into the wild. Roadside zoos and photo/petting opportunities are not putting your money towards conservation. You are being manipulated into supporting false conservation through a lack of education and awareness (remember this for the conclusion).
wicked, complexThe hands-on method works in South Africa because of the socioeconomic circumstances unique to that location. This technique has zero benefit to lions that are a continent and an ocean away (in the USA). Unfortunately, the combination of the hand-on approach in Africa and the ignorance of problems in the US makes things worse. Americans see the hands-on method and immediately decide that they want to replicate the bond between man and beast-so they buy a cub or support the hands-on approach in American organizations. It is a vicious cycle of problem, solution, bigger problem.
What big cats need from you as an activist in the US is to focus on the problem in the US. Because the solutions to wicked, complex problems depend on location and socioeconomic factors, what works in Africa does not work in the United States. What works in South Africa does not even work in Tanzania. I have provided some guidance below to help us unite and stand together for a more effective and strategically approach to big cat conservaiton in the US.
For Big Cat Organizations:
Despite the incredible work done for big cats by US based organization, we stand divided. If you look on the back of a dollar bill, you will see an eagle holding a bundle of arrows. This symbol was taken from the Iroquois who consist of the Mohawk, the Onondaga, the Oneida, the Seneca, and the Cayuga, of whom once stood divided. "One arrow can be broken with your hands, but a bundle of arrows together are harder to break because together they are stronger". The divided tribes used this analogy to unite together to what we now know as the Iroquois.
We now have a better understanding of wicked, complex problems and how big cat conservation is one of them. Solutions for conservation problems will be location specific due to the socioeconomic factors fueling the problem. It does not make sense for US organizations to bash South African organizations using the hands-on approach (at least the ones that optimize welfare). If you believe that this method is increasing the issues in the US, you are right. But due to our socioeconomic factors in the US, it is our fault for not effectively and efficiently educating, spreading awareness, and passing legislation. Moreover, the lack of education and awareness in the US fostering the general public to support pseudo conservation organizations is more or less our fault. After all, a part of our mission is education and awareness, so it is our approach to solving the problem in the US that needs a better solution.
The more US based big cat organizations continue to alienate other unique approaches, the farther we push ourselves from reaching the universal goal: to save big cats. So stand united and focus on the US. If the US focused more on our education and awareness solutions, the general public would have been able to recognize the falsehood in Black Jaguar White Tiger, instead of being its major contributor. We understand that BJWT markets cub interactions, animals in house and human environment, and almost nothing with an adult big cat in a luscious habitat. This is the extreme opposite level of animal welfare and education in comparison to Kevin Richardson, yet BJWT controls the industry's perception.
Finally, big cat organizations should understand the Pallotta Paradox and strive to merge with the strategies of the profit sector. If your organization has ever said "its not in our budget" or "that's too expensive" this applies to you. There is no price for endangered species, and therefore "not enough money" is not a reasonable excuse for organizations in charge of protecting them. The reason the shift towards strategies of the profit sector is necessary is because they are winning. Innovation, market trends and the monetary value continues to bloom in the profit sector, but the nonprofit sector has been stuck at 2% of the US GDP in donations for the last decade. That single statistic alone says something.
For the General Public:
Knowledge is the new money. Use the USDA inspection reports to investigate an organization’s track record. Make sure that the organization is recognized by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, Tigers in America, and/or the Association for Zoo’s and Aquariums. The money you contribute to a photograph with a tiger, petting a cub, or a live animal show is going to the owners’ profit and not towards conservation (do the math). Finally, and this is the biggest, do not participate in any bashing, degrading, or educational activities (especially on social media) without educating yourself first. This includes education, certifications, peer-review scientific journal articles, and actual primary sources meaning things like financial reports and data sheets. Shy away from new media and personal blogs, but research blogs that use references and hyperlinks are okay. All of this information is available online purposefully, so that organizations can be transparent with their investors and show them where their money goes.
Either change your career path and seek an education that fosters big cat conservation, or use a nonprofit’s Form 990 make sure that an organization is putting your money where their mouth is.
Please understand, wicked complex environmental problems are everywhere. Climate change, water, deforestation, coral reef bleaching, and endangered species. However, all wicked, complex problems are rooted at poverty, education, and health. Please use the information within this article to do your own research. A great source is the United Nations.
Bachelors in Conservation Biology
State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
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Professional Science Masters in Zoo, Aquarium and Animal Shelter Management
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Masters in Business Administration in Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise Candidate
Colorado State University
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In progress: Exotic animal incidents and related organization's political campaigns: Do the numbers add up to the cause?
Board Member and Wildlife Director