Biodiversity Loss in Wild Cat Habitats

By Kelly Carton
Lead Integrated Content Strategist

Jaguar in the Pantanal

Did you know that wild cat ranges collectively cover 74 percent of the Earth’s landmass? These habitats occur in three of every four Key Biodiversity Areas, sites that contribute significantly to the planet’s biodiversity and overall health. By preventing wildlife disease, preserving water quality and supporting carbon storage, wild cats make these biodiverse areas healthier. But powerful forces — habitat fragmentation, deforestation and overhunting of prey species — threaten these cat species and the biodiversity they protect. Read on to learn about threats to biodiversity in jaguar, lion and tiger habitats and what Panthera is doing on the ground to solve them.

Pair of jaguars

A Roadmap for Jaguar and Biodiversity Recovery 

As the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere, the jaguar’s range overlaps with most of the tropical forests in the Americas’, which collectively stores 17 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and benefit communities worldwide. However, habitat depletion, human-cat conflict and overhunting of jaguar prey have eradicated the species from nearly 50 percent of its historic range. 

In 2018, Panthera was a founding member of the Jaguar 2030 Roadmap. This global partnership seeks to strengthen the Jaguar Corridor, which extends from Mexico to Argentina, by securing 30 critical landscapes by 2030. In addition to protecting these habitats, the Initiative will simultaneously create sustainable economic opportunities for local people, rehabilitate ecosystems, strengthen biodiversity and help mitigate climate change. Later this year, the 18 jaguar range states will agree upon a collaborative platform under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and CMS (the UN Convention on Migratory Species) to save this iconic big cat and its contributions to global biodiversity.

Male lion staring

Protecting Lions, Ecosystem Guardians

As apex predators, lions shape and balance food webs in their woodland savanna habitats by managing populations of prey species and culling sick prey, which also prevents the spread of disease. Healthy lion populations indicate the overall health of their complex ecosystems, yet, human expansion has fragmented lion habitat and depleted the species’ prey through bushmeat hunting. These threats, coupled with poaching for the illegal wildlife trade and human-cat conflict over livestock depredation, have decimated lion populations. Today, lions roam less than 5 percent of their historic range.  

In 2022, Panthera joined forces with WWF (World Wildlife Fund) in the historic Living with Big Cats Initiative, which aims to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and increase economic benefits for the people living alongside big cats through a community-centric approach. The Initiative is focused on protecting priority landscapes like the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) — the world's largest conservation area. By protecting lion habitat, the Initiative will also conserve the rich biodiversity and thousands of species with whom lions coexist. By 2030, the project aims to stabilize and increase the size, integrity and connectivity of big cat habitats and their prey bases in KAZA and five other priority landscapes. 

Tiger sitting down

The Trickle-Down Effect of Tigers

The tiger is a flagship species — a well-known, charismatic cat that can serve as a conservation ambassador and garner support from policymakers and the public alike. Research has shown that protected areas with tigers have greater biodiversity and carbon stocks because they are better protected from poaching and illegal activities that result in habitat degradation. Poaching for the illegal wildlife trade and loss of prey has resulted in approximately one million square kilometers of suitable habitat devoid of tigers. In 1900, 100,000 tigers prowled our planet. Today, only 4,500 wild tigers remain. 

In Thailand's South Western Forest Complex, which is part of the Western Forest Complex (WEFCOM), the country’s largest patch of forest, Panthera is working with partners to build local capacity to protect and recover prime tiger habitat. We offer vital training in conducting patrols both on foot and by boat, operating camera traps and utilizing our innovative Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART). These efforts have contributed to the tiger population doubling in the larger WEFCOM in the past decade. Since tigers require huge territories and thrive in biodiverse landscapes, investing in this species has a trickle-down effect on entire ecosystems and regions. 

We share so much of our planet with wild cats, making our futures inextricably linked. Wild cats support carbon storage, prevent the spread of disease by controlling prey populations and even drive funding that protects other endangered species in their communities. Protecting wild cats has positive impacts that expand well beyond these majestic species — their conservation protects us all. 

Read last month’s blog on prey depletion and stay tuned for more on the threats facing wild cats — as well as the solutions.