How Does Panthera Help Solve Poaching of Wild Cats?

By Kelly Carton
Lead Integrated Content Strategist

Wild cat skins at a market

Poaching and hunting are two of the foremost threats facing wild cats, big and small. Whether targeting their fur, teeth, claws or another body part, felines are highly sought after by poachers and hunters. Three of the species staring down these serious challenges include bobcats, Malayan tigers and West African lions. But, how do hunting and poaching differ? Read on to learn about the difference between poaching and hunting, as well as the comprehensive solutions Panthera and its partners are implementing to reverse these threats. 

Hunting Vs. Poaching 

It’s important to first understand both hunting and poaching. While hunting and poaching may be used interchangeably, they are different. Hunting takes place when a person legally removes an animal from the wild, often requiring a permit to shoot or trap an animal. Each state in the United States monitors key wildlife populations and sets “bag limits” on the number of wildlife that can legally be harvested each year, in an attempt to ensure harvest is sustainable. Afterward, in some cases, hunters must report their kills to the proper authority. 

Meanwhile, poaching is the illegal slaying of wildlife, whether by poisoning, shooting, trapping or another method. Poachers will often illegally enter a protected area, kill the animal, then abscond before being caught. The illegal wildlife trade is one of the largest drivers of poaching. 

Panthera is addressing these issues simultaneously. Sustainable hunting is reliant on an understanding of the size of a population so that authorities can determine an appropriate bag limit for each species. We monitor wild cat populations worldwide and work with partners and local governments to share this knowledge. Meanwhile, we equip and train rangers in key “catscapes” with the tools needed to monitor poaching activity and take the steps necessary to mitigate poaching. 

A bobcat in Washington State
© Mark Elbroch/Panthera

Among the Few Spotted Species That Can Legally be Hunted

Bobcats, although sometimes confused with house cats, are, on average, two to three times the size of a domestic cat and are best known for their unique facial ruffs and black and white ears. Their range includes the vast expanse of southern Canada, the contiguous United States and parts of Mexico. Bobcats are among the few spotted cat species that can be legally hunted, so they are highly sought after for their unique pelts, especially in the Southwestern US, where bobcats have black-spotted abdomens. In 2022, 248 bobcats were legally trapped for their fur while 328 were hunted for sport or commercial purposes in the state of Washington alone. Bobcats, like all carnivores, play a vital role in ecosystem health and function, but they reproduce slowly, leaving them especially susceptible to population collapse due to overhunting. 

There is currently no bag limit for hunting bobcats in Washington State, which raises the question of whether such losses to wild populations are sustainable. In response, Panthera is aiming to work with government agencies to improve knowledge of bobcat populations that can be applied to responsibly set bag limits to ensure that bobcat populations can thrive and support the region’s precious ecosystems. Therefore, further exploration into bobcat ecology to inform sustainable management will help to ensure a healthy environment for people and wildlife. 

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Cats scraping and leaving their “scent” in areas visited by others serve to help individuals encounter mates and avoid costly direct encounters with predators and competitors. 

Panthera’s Olympic Bobcat Project studies bobcat behavior and healthy interactions among carnivores on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Through GPS collar data, this project uncovers bobcats’ selection of dens, rest and feeding sites and the impacts of logging and housing developments on bobcat movement and behavior. The project also studies interactions with other species, including coexistence with pumas and bobcat predation on mountain beavers, which are harmful to the state’s logging industry. To date, our team has fitted seven bobcats with GPS collars, tracking and collecting genetic samples from four males and three females. From these data, we have identified and investigated the den sites of all three females, which are active only when they have kittens. These data are also informing important work being done by tribal members from the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Through GPS tracking and camera trapping to monitor population densities, we aim to better understand the causes of bobcat mortality, especially from hunting, and the impacts of hunting on the population. We’re excited to discover more —a strong understanding of bobcat resource selection, as well as other facets of their ecology, will enable us to inform sustainable management practices for the species.  

A Critically Endangered Malayan Tiger
© NuvistaTV

Protecting Malaysia’s Tigers from Poaching 

Malaysia is a biodiversity hotspot that is home to tropical rainforests and the Malayan tiger, one of the world’s rarest cat subspecies and one of the most sought-after for poachers. A single tiger can sell for up to $50,000, which is multiple times the average annual salary in some tiger range countries. Many poachers are international, visiting the country to hunt wildlife before disappearing over the border. Decades of rampant poaching have nearly eradicated the Malayan tiger, which is now classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List for Threatened Species. According to the Malaysian government, fewer than 200 Malayan tigers remain. 

Panthera’s Tigers Forever Program has developed a three-pronged solution: offering on-the-ground support to law enforcement, bolstering the capacity of our partners through professionalized ranger trainings and applying scientific techniques to study and counter wildlife crime. We’re working with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) Malaysia and Indigenous Orang Asli communities to form a trailblazing counter-poaching team in the deep forest, where poachers are so elusive, they’re known as “Ghosts of the Forest.” Additionally, we’ve published a cutting-edge Guide to Deep Forest Counter-Poaching Operations in partnership with Malaysia’s DWNP to be used by partner agencies throughout the region. To bolster the efforts of the region’s law enforcement officers, we’re helping build the capacity of rangers and crime analysts to tailor counter poaching techniques to specific crime types. We’re also using innovative techniques by applying crime science and a problem-oriented approach to reduce harm to tigers and their prey and to improve co-existence between people and wild cats. And in partnership with the NGO Justice for Wildlife Malaysia, we’re co-leading Justice for Silent Victims (J4SV) workshops that bring together and train wildlife crime investigators, prosecutors, and the judiciary in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations. 

A West African lion in Senegal.
© Panthera

The Last of the West African Lions 

Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park (NKNP) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a stronghold for the West African lion, a highly threatened subpopulation of the Northern lion subspecies, which is known for its thin mane and lanky body. Serving as the official symbol of Senegal and the mascot for the national football team, the species is even mentioned in the country’s anthem. Despite their regional reverence, West African lions have been classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN after a dramatic population decline due to poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, overhunting of the species’ prey and conflict with humans over livestock predation. The numbers are stark — lions have been eradicated from 99 percent of their historic range in West Africa. 

Alongside Senegal's Department of National Parks, we've invested in infrastructure (including roads and ranger bases), training and equipping anti-poaching rangers and counter-poaching operations to help protect Niokolo-Koba's threatened wildlife. We also monitor wildlife populations through camera traps, scat collection and, for the first time ever, fitting six West African lions with GPS collars in 2022. These GPS data will unveil which habitats require more investment and enable us to better protect and ultimately recover the subpopulation. We’re already seeing encouraging, dramatic growth — the lion population in NKNP has more than doubled in just a decade, with poaching down by 80 percent from 2017. 

Poaching and hunting have been formidable threats to wild cat populations for centuries. But through a combination of research, population monitoring, training and counter wildlife crime tactics, Panthera and its partners are making important strides for bobcats, Malayan tigers and West African lions. Together, we can mitigate these serious threats and help secure a future for wild cat populations globally. 

Want to learn more about the threats facing wild cats? Read last month’s blog on human-cat conflict and stay tuned for more on the threats facing wild cats — as well as the solutions.