Threats to Wild Cats and Solutions Through Ecotourism

By Kelly Carton
Lead Integrated Content Strategist

Lion chewing on lost camera

Wild cats are highly adaptable, but poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, habitat degradation and conflict with humans are threatening their survival. Seventy percent of the world’s big cat species are listed as Endangered (facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild) or Vulnerable (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, while nearly 40 percent of the world’s 33 small cat species have the same classification. While there is no one solution to wild cat conservation, ecotourism is helping these species globally by adding thousands of watchful eyes to wild cat habitats, generating much-needed funding, stimulating research and raising awareness about lesser-known species. Read on to learn about how ecotourism is helping protect leopards in South Africa, jaguars and ocelots in the Brazilian Pantanal and four species of small cats in Costa Rica. 

What is Ecotourism? 

United Nations’ World Tourism Day is right around the corner on September 27, so let's start by defining ecotourism and how it differs from traditional tourism. Ecotourism has four central goals: 

  1. Minimize the impact on natural resources and biodiversity; 
  2. Actively teach tourists about ecosystems and build environmental awareness; 
  3. Respect local culture and contribute to intercultural understanding and respect; and  
  4. Foster participation in activities that improve the welfare of local people through well-distributed economic benefits to local guides and communities.  
Leopard in Sabi Sands

Data Points on Leopard Spots 

Wild cats are a popular sight for ecotourists, who, in turn, bring benefits to their habitats. Leopards, known for their striking rosette patterns and ability to hoist prey up into trees, are one of the most popular cats on safaris. Though they technically have the largest range of any of the big cats, roaming across 62 countries, leopards have vanished from at least two-thirds of their historic range in Africa and 84 percent of Eurasia as a result of poaching, conflict with local people and rampant prey depletion. Today, leopards are extinct in at least 13 countries, although this number could be as high as 20. However, these felines are incredibly adaptable and have ardent supporters dedicated to their survival. Panthera and its partners are addressing threats to leopards and in some project sites, including Zambia’s Greater Kafue Ecosystem, leopard populations are stabilizing.

South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve, a shining example of the many benefits that ecotourism can bring to wildlife and communities, supports leopards in three different ways. First, a robust ecotourism industry enables us to collect thousands of data points from experienced ecotourism guides on as many as 85 leopards monthly. This game reserve is a sanctuary for leopards and there are sensitive and thoughtful wildlife guidelines in place, including preventing the viewing of cubs until they are a certain age and limiting the number of cars to 3 at a time. Guides are also well-versed in and responsive to leopard’s body language. In this environment, leopards are relaxed, giving us unparalleled visibility into their natural behavior. Second, ecotourism brings revenue to the park, which supports livelihoods by creating jobs for local people, helping deepen appreciation and reverence for wildlife. Finally, these guides and tourists lend thousands of pairs of watchful eyes to the pristine landscape, which may help deter poachers. Now operating since 2009, this successful project has grown into the longest-running leopard study in history.

Four-Pronged Benefits of Ecotourism in the Pantanal 

The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland and home to one of the highest concentrations of flora and fauna in South America. Thousands of tourists flock here each year to see giant otters, tapirs, and of course, the Pantanal’s apex carnivore, jaguars, hunting caimans. But in 2022, scientists warned that this precious ecosystem was at risk of collapse because of climate change and land-use decisions. Climate change is contributing to extreme droughts and wildfires, which, paired with more intensive land use, could spell disaster. The 2020 wildfires alone affected nearly half of the Pantanal’s jaguar population, by displacing, injuring or killing 746 felines. 

Panthera’s Jofre Velho Conservation Ranch is a research base in an area with one of the highest densities of jaguars in all of Latin America, with approximately 8 jaguars per 100 km2 of ranch areas. Tourists in the Pantanal are almost guaranteed to see a jaguar, which helps generate an estimated $8-9 million in annual revenue and supports careers for tour guides, boat and van drivers, employees at local hotels and more. The benefits of ecotourism in the Pantanal are four-fold: it creates jobs for local people, transforms jaguars from a threat to farming to a source of sustainable income (that is 52 times higher than other economic opportunities in the region), generates funding that can be reinvested in infrastructure (roads, electricity, education, etc.) and motivates visitors to learn more about jaguars and their essential role in this unique wetland ecosystem. Can’t make it to the Pantanal any time soon? Enjoy this video one of our scientists captured of a jaguar retrieving a caiman carcass on a riverbank.

Monkey and baby

Ecotourism Best Practices in Action in Costa Rica 

Situated in Central America, Costa Rica serves as a critical refuge for thousands of species, including jaguars, pumas, margays, oncillas, ocelots and jaguarundis. This small country has a huge concentration of highways, with more than 44,000 km of roadways, which not only fragment wildlife habitats but also contribute to vehicular collisions with wildlife. Over the past decade alone, 500 wild cats have been killed on Costa Rican roads. In direct response to this issue, Panthera’s Wild Cats Friendly Roads Project collaborates with the government, the Wildlife Friendly Roads Group, other NGO’s and local communities to collect vital data on roadkill hotspots and to inform plans to construct underpasses, arboreal crossings and wildlife crossing signs. 

Costa Rica is a booming ecotourism destination which generated nearly $1.7 billion in 2021 alone. More than 2 million ecotourists visit each year to see thousands of species and Costa Rica’s unique mountains, beaches and iconic tropical forests. More than a quarter of the country’s land area has been dedicated to national parks and reserves, according to the United States’ Embassy of Costa Rica. One of these is Manuel Antonio National Park, home to an impressive combination of rainforests, mangroves, beaches and coral reefs. The park employs local guides and reduces pollution by banning any external food or drink (aside from water), utilizing ecotourism best practices. The park also educates visitors about its wildlife and clearly publicizes that feeding or touching wildlife is strictly prohibited. When ecotourism is implemented thoughtfully and with respect to local people and biodiversity, it can generate a cascade of positive benefits for wildlife, human communities and the environment at large.

Each month, we highlight different threats facing wild cats as well as our solutions. Read last month’s blog about creative solutions being implemented by our Indigenous partners in Malaysia, the United States and Gabon.