Fires, Freeways and Farms: Threats and Solutions in Wild Cat Habitats

By Kelly Taylor Carton
Lead Integrated Content Strategist

Puma in Costa Rica
©PANTHERA

Each month, we’re highlighting a different issue facing wild cats. This month, we’re focusing on threats to wild cat habitats. Keep reading to discover how Panthera is addressing the challenges of habitat loss and fragmentation across the globe. 

Wild cats have some of the largest home ranges of any mammals, with male tigers in Northeast Asia requiring as many as 2,000 square kilometers and lions in arid areas ranging areas as large as 1,745 square kilometers. Within these territories, wild cats need abundant prey, water cover, and mates to survive and reproduce. When humans disrupt native habitats — whether clearing forests to create pastures for livestock, oil palm plantations, industrial agriculture and logging, or roadways — the results can be catastrophic. Separated from prey and mates, wild cats are forced to inbreed (harming the species’ resiliency and ability to reproduce) or wander across crowded highways. Panthera is implementing several solutions around the globe to combat the key threats facing wild cat habitats. 

Sunset in the Brazilian Pantanal.
Sunset in the Brazilian Pantanal.
©PANTHERA

Climate Change and Natural Disasters 

Fires in the Brazilian Pantanal 

Photos and videos of the 2020 fires in the Pantanal — the result of intense drought and climate change — demonstrated the climate catastrophe taking place. But a new study reveals the harrowing effect this had on the Pantanal. Panthera scientists estimate these fires burned nearly a third of the Pantanal and affected 45 percent of the local jaguar population. Fire is indiscriminate, destroying habitats and killing jaguars, ocelots, tapirs and other iconic species.   

Fires burn in the Pantanal in 2020, affecting 45 percent of the local jaguar population.
Fires burn in the Pantanal in 2020, affecting 45 percent of the local jaguar population.
©RAFAEL HOOGESTEIJN/PANTHERA

Although fires are an inevitable symptom of a changing climate, Panthera and its core partner, the Jaguar ID Project, are better equipped to protect the Pantanal and the thousands of species who call it home. We now have a 5,000-liter water tank, training from local fire departments and a warehouse for fire equipment, thanks to a donation from SOS Pantanal, Instituto Homem Pantaneiro and filmmaker L. Wahba. These vital tools enabled us to create a permanent fire brigade and rapid response programs. We’re also making jaguar conservation plans that increase the size of protected areas and bolster livelihoods for neighboring communities, including conflict mitigation procedures. Now, more than 100 jaguars live in the Porto Jofre region of the Northern Pantanal, generating 10 million dollars annually in economic activity. Together with partners, Panthera works to ensure the Pantanal and its jaguars can bounce back stronger from these fires. 

Mist rises from the forest in Sabah, Malaysia.
Mist rises from the forest in Sabah, Malaysia.
©SEBASTIAN KENNERKNECHT

Agricultural Deforestation

Oil Palm Plantations

Borneo is a unique landscape in which Sunda clouded leopards are the apex carnivores. Here, the species has no natural predator — except humans. When these biodiverse forests are cleared for large-scale plantations, clouded leopards and their prey are displaced. And with agricultural plantations come people — some of whom may participate in opportunistic poaching. 

The jungle meets an oil palm plantation.
The jungle meets an oil palm plantation.
©WAI-MING WONG/PANTHERA

Panthera is implementing several complementary solutions in Sabah, Malaysia, including supporting government agencies by refining patrol strategies and using camera traps to plan effective traffic stops. Nearby communities have also been integral to this work — volunteering their time to assist in protecting wildlife. We continue to advocate for community-based solutions with tangible livelihood benefits that can improve the overall protection of forests and wildlife. Learn more about clouded leopards. 

The breathtaking forest of Olympic National Park, a hideout for pumas.
The breathtaking forest of Olympic National Park, a hideout for pumas.
©SEBASTIAN KENNERKNECHT/panthera

Habitat Fragmentation

Inbreeding in Washington State

Among the fastest developing regions on the West Coast of the United States, the Olympic Peninsula is fast becoming an island — the Interstate-5 separates the Peninsula and the thousands of species who call it home from the rest of the state. The pumas on the Peninsula are already less genetically diverse than populations elsewhere in the state and are at risk of further inbreeding. Inbreeding results in populations that are less resilient to environmental changes and less likely to reproduce and survive. 

Pumas sometimes traverse these waters in their quest for territory and food.
Pumas sometimes traverse these waters in their quest for territory and food.
©sebastian kennerknecht

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and five other Indigenous tribes are partnering with Panthera to study the movement of pumas and bobcats and the ramifications of the nearby interstate highway, identify bottlenecks and blockages in wildlife corridors and work with state developers to ensure I-5 is modified to aid wildlife on the Olympic Peninsula. We are working towards a future in which the I-5 features well-placed land bridges for wildlife like pumas to safely cross and reunite with their species. Learn more about the critical role pumas play in their ecosystems. 

Costa Rica's forests are home to six species of wild cats, including jaguars and pumas.
Costa Rica's forests are home to six species of wild cats, including jaguars and pumas.
©panthera

Roadways 

An All-Female Team Building Wildlife-Friendly Infrastructure

Wild cats are constantly on the move, searching for mates, prey and shelter. In Costa Rica, a country teeming with biodiversity and highways (more than 44,316 km of roads), vehicular collisions and habitat fragmentation are too common. Daniela Araya-Gamboa and her all female-team wake before dawn several days a week to count animal corpses on Costa Rican highways, including one stretch that sees an almost unimaginable four wild animal deaths per hour on average. In fact, over the past ten years, 500 wild cats have been killed on Costa Rican roads. 

Monkeys prepare to cross a suspended bridge into the jungle.
Monkeys prepare to cross a suspended bridge into the jungle.
©PANTHERA/MOPT

But Costa Rica is an environmentally-conscious country, considered the gold standard for most wildlife conservation efforts. As coordinator for Panthera's Wild Cats Friendly Roads Project in Costa Rica, Araya-Gamboa puts herself at risk on dangerous roads to protect wild cats, including jaguars, pumas, margays, jaguarundis, ocelots and oncillas. Araya-Gamboa works collaboratively with the government and Vías Amigables con la Vida Silvestre Group to reverse this deadly trend. Solutions include collecting and sharing data on roadkill hotspots so that mitigation measures like road underpasses, retrofitting of culverts, arboreal crossings for wildlife and building wildlife crossing signs can be instituted. She has even created a WhatsApp channel to crowd-source data on roadkill — galvanizing citizen scientists to further wild cat conservation. Learn more about the threats posed by roadways. 

Although the threats to wild cat habitats vary widely across the globe, Panthera is committed to protecting these landscapes and the wild cats who call them home. Join us in protecting wild cats and these habitats, from rainforests to deserts to alpine forests.