If you’ve been following Panthera’s blog this year, you know that there are many threats facing wild cats. Poaching and hunting, habitat fragmentation and degradation, human-cat conflict, illegal wildlife trade, biodiversity loss and prey depletion threaten wild cat populations worldwide, but fortunately, these species have many allies. While Panthera and other NGOs are committed to wild cats as institutions, many indigenous communities share this commitment, as wild cats hold deep cultural significance, often a part of the community's identity and intergenerational legacy. For many indigenous peoples, biodiversity conservation, of which wild cats are an integral part, is a matter of survival. We are learning through our own work and from these partners that as apex predators, wild cats are able to help us gauge the health of the biodiversity and resilience in their habitats. Read along to learn more about Indigenous communities’ solutions that are safeguarding tigers in Malaysia, protecting pumas and bobcats in Washington State and preserving lions and leopards in Gabon.
Protecting the Critically Endangered Malayan Tiger
With fewer than 200 Malayan tigers remaining, this subspecies requires urgent, collective action. Increasingly sophisticated poachers camp for months in the deep forest of Peninsular Malaysia in hopes of capturing one of these Critically Endangered tigers. These cunning poachers will target ridgelines and set hundreds of cheap but effective thick wire snares along tiger trails, which would post danger to any medium to large-bodied wildlife moving along them. Then, poachers wait for months for a prized catch before absconding across the border with the body, along with other valuable parts and species they catch in their indiscriminate snares. But these tragically poached tigers play an essential role in this ecosystem by shaping the food web and controlling prey species.
In the heart of Peninsular Malaysia’s forest, combining modern technology and traditional skills Panthera and the Orang Asli communities are together building tailored and specialized counter-poaching tactics, in partnership with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) Malaysia and other key local partners. Given the familiarity of the Orang Asli with their forest and its wildlife, many members of Orang Asli communities have become rangers and have now actively protected tigers for nearly a decade. Panthera’s team of Orang Asli rangers are among those who have earned recognition in Malaysia for their outstanding tracking and assistance with locating poaching camps and combating wildlife crime. Today, DWNP employs over 1,000 rangers from the indigenous and local communities, who not only promote coexistence but play an invaluable role in effective tiger conservation.
Conserving the Olympic Peninsula’s Bobcats and Pumas
Wild cats require large territories and access to potential mates, but rapid human development in Washington State threatens these evolutionary requirements. On average, male pumas in Washington State have home ranges that are 100 to 200 square miles, while male bobcats have ranges as large as 6 square miles. The I-5 highway and accompanying development are isolating pumas and bobcats from mates and suitable habitat on the Olympic Peninsula, so these felines must either cross a massive highway or swim around via Puget Sound to maintain genetic diversity. New research published in 2022 emphasizes the severity of this issue — pumas in this region have the highest rate of inbreeding and the lowest genetic diversity of any population in Washington, which decreases both resiliency to disease and overall evolutionary adaptation.
Six tribal nations, including the Lower Elwha Klallam, Skokomish, Makah, Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribes and the Quinault Indian Nation, along with the Point-No-Point Treaty Council and the Washington State Department of Transportation joined forces with Panthera to form the Olympic Cougar Project (OCP) and the Olympic Bobcat Project. Through these initiatives, the team has collectively fitted more than 50 pumas and seven bobcats with GPS collars in 2022 alone, which are now unveiling important insights into these wild cats’ feeding, breeding and dispersal patterns. We’ve also collectively set more than 500 camera traps and collected genetic samples from more than 100 pumas to gain a better understanding of the threats facing these species, which will inform effective conservation strategies. Armed with this data, we’re contributing to the Washington Wildlife Habitat Working Group and the Washington Wildlife Connectivity Action Plan via proposed wildlife corridors and a short list of top priorities for building connectivity infrastructure, including wildlife bridges and underpasses in western Washington.
Banding Together to Restore Gabon’s Wildlife
Gabon’s Batéké Plateau National Park is a unique forest-savanna landscape in the Congo Basin that is home to leopards and the region’s only remaining lion. The park and surrounding landscape are named after the local (Ba)Téké people, who have occupied this landscape for centuries. Here, European colonists hunted lion and leopard populations, both revered as powerful totem animals by the Batéke, to near extinction. Other wildlife in the park includes African golden cats, forest elephants and forest buffalo. Protecting lions and leopards has a ripple effect on the entire ecosystem and all of its inhabitants, including these other charismatic creatures.
In 2015, a single lion was spotted on a camera trap, prompting the Gabonese government to partner with Panthera to explore a lion restoration project. Since then, we’ve managed to collect DNA from that lion, discovering that he is closely related to lions in southwest Africa as well as lions that formerly roamed Gabon and the Congo. In addition to this research, we’re working with the (Ba)Téké people and other communities, who are excellent stewards of their environment. Together, we are promoting traditional livelihoods by bolstering the area’s infrastructure through improving transportation and the creation of a community reserve that would be co-managed by six Téké communities. We also work with park authorities and local communities to help restore wildlife in the wider Batéké landscape, including conducting a countrywide leopard survey and training and supporting anti-poaching patrols. Our efforts, so far, have resulted in marked increase in local wildlife populations on the Gabon side of the landscape, a considerable drop in illegal hunting, as well as improved livelihoods in Téké communities north of the park.
Implementing Community-Based Solutions
In order to protect wild cats from today’s most urgent threats, we need all paws on deck. For centuries, many Indigenous communities have learned to not only coexist with wild cats, but also to actively work to protect them. Panthera is grateful to count the Indigenous Orang Asli communities, Lower Elwha Klallam, Skokomish, Makah, Jamestown S’Klallam and Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribes, the Quinault Indian Nation, and (Ba)Téké people among its esteemed partners in wild cat protection. The future of tigers, pumas, bobcats, lions, leopards and countless other species is much brighter thanks to these collective efforts.
Learn more about the threats facing wild cats, including last month’s blog about poaching and hunting.