So what role do these apex predators play in their respective environments?
Would the world really be worse off if we lost jaguars or tigers? Without a doubt, yes. These apex predators play a pivotal role in the balance of the ecosystem. How can we most easily see that? The world is seeing it very clearly now with this whole spate of emerging infectious diseases, like SARS, West Nile Virus, Ebola… things which are not new. They’ve been in the system on our planet for a very long time.
But the firewall that has helped keep most of these diseases in check has been the natural environment. Now when you take away apex predators, that completely throws out the balance of the environment. Everything below that, you get what’s called ecological release -an explosion of species that can be carriers or can help to spread the diseases themselves.
Well, it is and it isn’t. I have to tell you, quite honestly, that we don’t have an education programme where we go out to try to educate school children about why tigers are important. The reason is because Panthera was set up to occupy a niche not occupied previously: that’s to go out with a fine-tuned focus to address the most critical threats – immediately – that are facing big cats in the wild today.
Now, for that to be sustainable long term, you will need an educated public. But we can’t wait for that – we’ve got to stop the ‘bleeding’; I always call it that because these big cat species are akin to a gunshot patient that’s being wheeled into the emergency room having taken several bullets in the chest. We simply don’t have the time to educate the person’s family or the patient themselves on how they should change their lives to avoid this happening again.
Wild cats in countries with strained political situations
China’s our biggest challenge, to put it mildly. Part of the problem has been the tiger trade. We’re not standing as Westerners saying, “This is wrong, you shouldn’t be doing these things. You could be taking aspirin instead of rhino horn for a fever, ibuprofen instead of tiger bone for pain relief.” That’s not the way to get at it.
Then the Chinese say, “Look. You want to keep tigers alive and we find tigers have a value, medicinally. Let us breed them in captivity and just use bred tigers for medicine.” Now the tiger world jumps up in arms and shouts, “You can’t breed tigers for that!” I have to tell you, that’s a non-argument. No one wants to see animals raised to be killed – especially a spectacular and iconic species like the tiger.
That’s the way to approach China: [with an open mind]. We do work with the Chinese and there are many high-level officials who want to do the right thing and save the tiger. But that country is not easily controlled on all levels. When you’re talking indigenous groups killing and trading in tiger parts across the Burmese-Chinese border, for instance, that’s not easily regulated by the government in Beijing.
Panthera Jaguar And Tiger Corridor
Why is it so crucial to maintain long strips of territory for these species?
These are the most important endeavours I’ve ever done. Some of the big causes of extinction are isolation, fragmentation, small population size and too few individuals breeding with one another. So you always want to avoid this. But these jaguars were doing something that none of us thought they could: moving outside of their protected areas through the human landscape. These corridors where the jaguars were passing through included rubber plantations, citrus groves, ranches and even people’s backyards. They’re moving through this terrain to get to the next protected zone.
You only need a few to make it through these corridors to the next area to maintain genetic viability. Why is that so important? Once you’ve created that link from one population to the next, what you essentially have is an ecological population that’s the same as if they were one. If there’s genetic movement between these [groups then] you have a huge population that has a much, much greater chance of surviving than any individual fragment.
It’s something we never thought we could get at because no country wants to make huge conservation areas. But the jaguar figured this out for us; I just had to work out where those corridors were, then work with governments with land-use zoning plans to keep them intact.
This is no sweat off a government’s back; they can claim to be more green and yet do nothing new. And the locals love it as it gives them more rights to their land. When I’ve told people they’re living in a jaguar corridor, they tell me, “You’re crazy! We haven’t had jaguars here for 50 years!” I reply, “Well, you don’t have jaguars living around you, but I can show you pictures of them, I can show you tracks.” They’re often very shocked. This is perfect, as it makes them realise that these corridors are no threat.
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