When Prey Species Disappear, Wild Cats Suffer

By Kelly Carton
Lead Integrated Content Strategist

Bobcat with squirrel
A bobcat after hunting a squirrel in Texas. ©KARIN SAUCEDO PHOTOGRAPHY

In every type of ecosystem — forest, grassland, tundra or desert —all species are linked to one another. Wild cats play an especially integral role because they help increase linkages between species and manage prey populations. For example, in the Santa Monica Mountains of California, pumas hunt deer, which may help prevent the overgrazing of vegetation. Local bobcats hunt rodents, which can help curb the spread of disease. Reduced prey populations, whether the result of poisoning, overhunting or poaching,  disrupts the entire food web. When prey populations are decimated, so too are wild cat populations. Panthera is studying the threats facing wild cats, their prey and their habitats around the globe and implementing lasting, impactful solutions.

A fishing cat carries its prey in Thailand.
A fishing cat carries its prey in Thailand.

Reduced Prey Populations 

Fishing Cats in Thailand 

Threat: Fishing cats are small wild cats with spots, short tails and small feet that are partially webbed. They rely on prey species like semi-aquatic rodents, birds, civets and, as their name suggests, fish to survive. In the wetlands and mangroves at the base of the mountains in peninsular Thailand, fishing cats must compete with humans for habitat, which is quickly being transformed into shrimp farms, fish ponds and rice fields. Overfishing and pollution threaten the natural fishing cat habitat, leading fishing cats to forage in farmed fish ponds which can result in retaliatory killings.  

Solution: Panthera is studying how fishing cats are adapting to this rapidly changing landscape, collecting vital data with GPS collars that will inform conservation action plans. Additionally, through our Small Cat Action Fund, we've funded multiple fishing cat projects that build awareness of the species’ importance to local ecosystems and foster coexistence with humans. Together with partners, Panthera aims to spotlight this rare species and implement an impactful conservation plan. Learn more about fishing cats.

An Arabian leopard.
An arabian leopard.
©Grégory Breton/Panthera

Arabian Leopards in Saudi Arabia  

Threat: The earliest pictorial evidence of leopards can be found in Saudi Arabia, where 7,000-year-old rock carvings depict the species alongside humans and other animals. Since then, Arabian leopards have played an ongoing role in the rich culture of the Middle East, the cat is often referred to as “Nimr” as a term of admiration. But prey depletion, human-cat conflict and habitat loss have nearly eradicated the species — it is estimated that fewer than 200 remain in the wild. Arabian leopards require gazelle, ibex, hare and other medium-sized mammals and birds to survive, but the same factors that have reduced Arabian leopard numbers have also led to a decline in prey populations in Saudi Arabia. 

Solution: Together with partners, including the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), the Arabian Leopard Fund and the National Center for Wildlife, Panthera is supporting efforts that will prepare five sites for the eventual reintroduction of Arabian leopards into the wild. Efforts include habitat restoration and the reintroduction of native herbivores, including Nubian ibex and gazelles. Once the habitat is restored and the current breeding program is fruitful, we hope to reintroduce a self-sustaining population of Arabian leopards back into their former range. Read more about Arabian leopards.

A serval on camera trap in Angola.
A serval on camera trap in Angola.

Depleted Prey Populations in Angola  

Threat: Angola’s Luengue-Luiana National Park is home to lions, leopards, cheetahs, caracals, servals and myriad other species. But three decades of civil war and persistent bushmeat hunting — driven by poverty — have devastated the park’s once abundant wildlife population. Now, fewer than 30 lions remain, although the landscape has the capacity to support hundreds. 

Solution: Despite all of this, the region remains a stronghold for wildlife in Southern Africa and a base population of prey remains. By engaging park residents as partners, Panthera has created a new, sustainable conservation model. Our comprehensive approach includes law enforcement, monitoring wildlife populations, and education and community outreach efforts. In 2022 alone, Panthera teams removed more than 500 wire snares and 126 gin traps, destroyed 32 poacher and gin trap manufacturing camps, and visited 27 major villages to present lessons on mitigating human-wildlife conflict and sustainable natural resource use. Read more about our work in Angola.

In Angola, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and beyond, prey populations are crucial to the survival of all wild cat populations. While prey depletion is only one of the myriad challenges facing wild cats, Panthera is committed to addressing these threats alongside our partners. Read last month’s blog on habitat loss and fragmentation and stay tuned for more on the threats facing wild cats — as well as the solutions.