The large carnivore in the room

In the past few years there has been an emphasis on assessing what makes a carnivore conservation effort successful (or not) and what the long-term prospects are for the variety of strategies in use. The reality is that there is no magic bullet or guarantee of success, but we certainly have a better sense of what will increase the odds that large carnivores are present in the future.

In my previous post I mentioned that large carnivores tend to need lots of space, which can be in short supply in human-dominated landscapes. This becomes easier to provide when we think of protected areas as part of a network linked by corridors- if animals can disperse between populations through the corridors of good habitat, then we no longer have isolated groups of animals. An analysis of reserve planning scenarios in South Africa found that the size of a reserve was most important in reducing the probability of extinction for African wild dog, cheetah, and lion populations (because bigger reserves can support larger carnivore populations), but connection between those patches was what would keep the species present across the landscape over the long-term because, if one population went extinct, animals from another could recolonize the area (Di Minin et al. 2013). What do we mean by corridors? Typically we are talking about stretches of undeveloped or less-developed land that provide animals with cover and a food source while they are in transit between locations- this can occur at many different scales: strips of forest between fields, smaller preserves spaced out between larger ones, specially-designed overpasses for wildlife to cross major roads, even hedgerows along mown lawns. Not only can corridors help large carnivores move between protected areas, but they can also help them find the resources they need in the patchwork of habitats in developed areas. When I drive to the coast for field work, for example, I pass a section of major road with forest on both sides and “bear crossing” signs. The area is largely covered with agricultural fields, but the small patches of forest and undeveloped areas connected by corridors, such as the one I drive through, allow black bears to survive amid the human presence. And I have seen bears there and just to the west who looked pretty healthy.


Protected areas did not keep leopards in the Phinda-Mkhuze complex in South Africa safe from human-caused mortality because the cats ranged outside of reserves. Photo from USFWS

Protected areas did not keep leopards in the Phinda-Mkhuze complex in South Africa safe from human-caused mortality because the cats ranged outside of reserves. Photo from USFWS

Often, however the survival of large carnivore populations is about more than just having space. Carnivores, as their name indicates, eat other animals and that includes animals that we also eat, so there is often conflict between humans and large carnivores over issues of prey and general safety. Groups around the world have been exploring strategies for minimizing this conflict. Conflicts over livestock are particularly important (Winterbach et al. 2013), and one option is to pay farmers for loss of livestock- ‘payments to encourage coexistence’ (Dickman et al. 2011). One challenge here is that payment needs to include not only the current value of the animal lost but also future value, for example the lost potential for lambs when a ewe is killed. Another issue is that the farmers may be nomadic or tenant-farmers and therefore have difficulty getting access to compensation for lost animals. Another option for promoting human-carnivore coexistence is to make payments that encourage certain behaviors that either limit conflict or provide resources carnivores need (‘payments for ecosystem services’). An example of the first is creating carnivore-proof corrals for livestock, while the second could mean letting certain areas go untilled. Namibia even has a ‘predator-friendly beef’ program so that consumers can support farms that use practices limiting conflict with carnivores (Winterbach et al. 2013). Oftentimes these programs are created and imposed from outside of the community, which can limit their effectiveness if local people don’t really feel like they have ownership or control. In response to this, some groups have organized locally-financed insurance programs where local farmers pay into a fund that will compensate them in the event of livestock loss to carnivores. An example of this is Project Snow Leopard in Pakistan which combines local contribution to and oversight of an insurance scheme with citizen science and educational opportunities for community members (Rosen et al. 2012).

To a large extent, carnivore conservation efforts succeed or fail based on the attitudes of governments and the local people (Winterbach et al. 2013). Poaching of wolves in Scandinavia had a significant impact on the population’s recovery (Liberg et al. 2012), while communities in some parts of Pakistan have shown growing acceptance of snow leopard presence as they felt more included in conservation efforts (Rosen et al. 2012). In Germany, Luchtrath & Schraml (2015) found that hunters in areas without lynx were far more concerned with who was pushing efforts to initiate lynx reintroduction than what impact the reintroduced animals might have, which suggests that relationships between groups involved in and affected by carnivore conservation are as important as the relationships between people and the carnivores.

So what about our relationships with large carnivores– how can we participate in sustaining large carnivore populations? In my final post of the month, I will look at things we can do to keep large carnivores alive and functioning in their ecosystems.

Works cited:
Di Minin, E, Hunter, LTB, Balme, GA, Smith RJ, Goodman, PS and R Slotow. 2013. Creating larger and better connected protected areas enhances the persistence of big game species in the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot. PLoS ONE 8: e71788.
Dickman, AJ, Macdonald, EA and DW Macdonald. 2011. A review of financial instruments to pay for predator conservation and encourage human-carnivore coexistence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108: 13937-19344.
Liberg, O, Chapron, G, Wabakken, P, Pedersen, HC, Hobbs, NT and H Sand. 2012. Shoot, shovel and shut up: cryptic poaching slows restoration of a large carnivore in Europe. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279: 910-915.
Luchtrath, A and U Schraml. 2015. The missing lynx- understanding hunters’ opposition to large carnivores. Wildlife Biology 21: 110-119.
Rosen, T, Hussain, S, Mohammad, G, Jackson, R, Jenecka, JE and S Michel. 2012. Reconciling sustainable development of mountain communities with large carnivore conservation: lessons from Pakistan. Mountain Research and Development 32: 286-293.
Winterbach, HEK, Winterbach, CW, Somers, MJ and MW Hayward. 2013. Key factors and related principles in the conservation of large African carnivores. Mammal Review 43: 89-110.