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Africa's Great Cats and Rare Canines Losing Ground

  • Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Lions, wolves, and other big cat and canine species have long captured people's imaginations. They have been memorialized by poets and filmmakers; exploited by short-sighted traders who would wipe them out for one more shipment of pelts; and feared by people who have moved into their habitats and now compete with them for the food, water, and land they both need to survive.

There is an urgent need to find ways to make space for these wide-ranging predators. Africa's national parks and other protected areas play a critical role. But many of these animals live outside of parks. To ensure their survival in the wild, ways must also be found to keep them out of the path of Africa's human communities.

That is why so many of AWF's projects -- including the Laikipia predator project in Kenya, the Large Carnivore Research Project near Chobe National Park, and AWF's work at Tanzania's Manyara Ranch -- focus on finding ways for people and wildlife to co-exist.

Threats to Their Survival

Each of the five species listed below is under siege, struggling against some combination of threats from habitat fragmentation and loss of prey to being poisoned or shot as livestock pests. AWF has responded with innovative programs in the landscape-level conservation areas it calls African Heartlands. There, these large predators are being given a fighting chance, because in addition to their intrinsic value, each plays a critical role in the ecosystems they inhabit. Without them, nature quickly tumbles out of balance. AWF is also working to pass important legislation in the U.S. Congress that would provide key funds to protect these cats and canines.

Designed for speed, the cheetah is able to sprint at 70 miles per hour for short distances, making it the fastest animal on land. It can even outpace the flight speeds of all bird species except three--the peregrine falcon, the golden eagle, and the Indian swift. Cheetahs have never been known to attack humans and yet it is pressure from humans that has put these graceful predators on the endangered species list. Even with their great speed, cheetahs are losing ground to habitat loss, poaching, and disease. In addition to safeguarding cheetah habitat in key African Heartlands, AWF has long supported the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia.

The leopard is a master of stealth and surprise. With its spotted coat--which is lighter in golden grasslands and darker in forested areas--the leopard can slink unnoticed through the brush, waiting patiently for a chance to edge closer to its unsuspecting prey. Solitary animals, leopards are the most adaptable of the large predators and can survive in just about any environment--except one that is disappearing. AWF's work in Samburu, the Maasai Steppe and other AWF Heartlands is protecting important leopard habitat and the prey species they need to survive.

Unlike the solitary creatures that most cats are, Africa's lions are highly social animals. They hunt, eat, and rest together in extended family groups called prides. Tragically, lion populations are plummeting throughout their range, which once covered most of Africa. Now found only in sub-Saharan Africa, their numbers have dropped by half since the 1950s. Although an estimated 18,000 to 23,000 survive in the wild, their rate of decline has conservationists alarmed. Like other big cats, lions benefit from AWF's many habitat protection programs. In addition, the research work AWF's Gosiame Neo-Mahupeleng is doing in our Kazungula Heartland is providing important insights into the behavior of lions moving back and forth between Botswana and Namibia along the Zambezi River.

The Latin name for the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, means "painted wolf," which aptly describes this colorful canine. Though long persecuted as a livestock raider, the reputation may be largely undeserved. To help sort out these issues, AWF and other groups are training local scouts to protect the dogs while identifying livestock management techniques that minimize contact between the dogs and local communities. An estimated 2,000 to 5,000 wild dogs survive in Africa.

The Ethiopian wolf is the most endangered canine species in Africa. As their natural range continues to be eroded by human settlement, the wolves are increasingly targeted as a pest species. The small size and isolation of their remaining populations make them especially vulnerable to disease. A 2003 outbreak of rabies nearly wiped them out until conservation groups, including AWF, mounted an emergency vaccination program. With only 400 or so adult wolves clinging to survival in Ethiopian's Bale and Simien Mountains, the Ethiopian wolf is on the verge of extinction.

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