April 29, 2011

Saving The Cats

*Welcome to the first edition of the Brian's Art for Animals blog.
Tiger-Wildcat Sanctuary, MN
  With recent movies like National Geographic’s The Last Lions and Disney’s African Cats, the plight of not only lions, but all big cats are once again in media’s attention. But I often find myself wanting to know more about these magnificent animals current situations. So I asked some of the leading people in both the wild and captive cat world some questions to hopefully make it a little easier to understand what is going on out there and if there is any hope for these cats in today’s world. My hope in writing this is that with this understanding it will make it easier for you to want to help out these organizations featured and do what you can to save the 40 or so species of wild cats.
  Far East Russia is home to both the Amur tiger and the Amur leopard. While the tigers population has somewhat held for a while, the leopards has fallen to under 40 and is critically endangered. Dale Miquelle the Director of WCS Russia was kind enough to answer these questions:
What are the most recent wild population numbers for the Amur Tigers?
(DM)Last count was 2005 - 430-502 animals was the estimate.

What is an aspect of Amur tiger conservation that is unique to this
species of feline rather that in trying to save a lion for example?
Because productivity of the land is so low compared to other places where tigers live, prey densities are naturally low, and consequently, each tiger needs much more land than, say, your average Bengal tiger.  Average adult Siberian female home ranges are at least 400 km2, vs about 20 km for Bengal females.  Hence to save a population of tigers of any given size requires about 20 times more land in Russia, than India, for instance.

What has been the most recent road block in tiger conservation, and do you honestly feel the recent Tiger Summit will help with this?
Poaching of tigers, prey and their habitat are the biggest issues, and these issues can only be solved at the national level.  Getting national-level commitment to tiger conservation is therefore key, and hence the Summit has a great potential to increase focus of national governments on tiger conservation.

Is there a magic number on Amur tigers that would result of you all
saying: ok, we did our job close shop they will be fine, or will we
always need to be involved in their conservation?

Unfortunately, no such magic number exists. As long as humans are continuing to exploit and convert land and natural resources, there will be continuous threats to tigers and all species.  We can only hope to transfer responsibility for conservation to the next generation, and do our best to minimize losses and acquire gains whenever possible.

Why did you personally get involved to save an animal that you may
never or very seldom see in the wild, and is also an animal that could
kill humans?

Tigers are an iconic species.  If we cannot save tigers from extinction, we need to ask whether we can save our selves.  So, in a very real sense, you can say, if we save tigers, perhaps we get to keep the planet.

Most cats have to deal with human encroachment and how we will
deal with the (taboo subject it seems) global population rising so
quickly and our usage of natural resources, do the
Amur tigers even in
their remote location have to factor this in?

Russia has the lowest population density of any country where tigers currently exist, so population density per se is not the threat it is in other countries.  But in nearby China, recovery of tigers will be hampered by the high densities of villages here.

Is there any current legislation pending that may hurt or benefit the
tigers that the average person should know about?
Is there anything the average American can learn from other countries
in regards to tiger or feline conservation?

Russia has a system of protected areas called zapovedniks, which do not allow entry by anyone except forest guards and  the occasional researcher.  Such a system is unheard in most western countries. But creating lands that are truly free of human impact is a lesson worth considering by any country.

The recent ratified Federal Tiger Conservation Program and the associated Action Plan lay out details of what needs to be done to save tigers.  If that plan is implemented, there is a good chance we will have a secure tiger population.

With terms of poaching or illegal logging, it seems we might jail or
an anti poaching unit may even kill one poacher, but that doesn't stop
the bigger outfits and the big crime bosses if you will, from getting
another poor person to put their life on the line to kill an animal. How
do we get the illegal trade in parts and the high demand for furs under
control and how do we in a bigger picture even try to remove mankind’s
basic greed for money/power emotion that leads to so much wrong doings
in this world like the illegal trade in wildlife parts?
Bigger outfits need to address by cooperation of national governments and agencies like Interpol that deal with organized crime. There are mechanisms to address such issues - the problem is getting governments to concentrate on them in regards to wildlife trade issues.

Is there a way to protect the Amur tigers natural prey species and is
it working?

Wildlife law enforcement officials are generally dedicated people, but resources available for them to do their job are meager.  Better support to these entities and people will be critical to protect the prey base of tigers.

Captive Snow Leopard-Tampa, Fl.

 One can argue that the Snow Leopard is simply one of the most beautiful animals on this earth. But will its beauty be enough to get people interested in conserving it along with its habitat? The snow leopard’s habitat crosses many borders and touches base in countries that have political and poverty struggles along with other problems to contend with before they even think of helping some wild cat up in the mountains. The Snow Leopard Trust is here to make sure that its conservation remains in the forefront of every ones mind. Brad Rutherford is the executive director and he answered the following question asked:
What are the most recent wild snow leopard population numbers?

(BR) Because the cats are so elusive and difficult to count the number that most scientists are using is still a broad range of between 3500 and 7000.  The data coming in from the long-term ecological study in Mongolia is showing very large home range but larger overlap than we would have anticipated.

What is an aspect of snow leopard conservation that is unique to this species of feline?

On the good news front one of the unique things about snow leopards is there has never been a confirmed killing of a person by a snow leopard which is an advantage for saving the species.  While we have conflict with herders who lose livestock to the cats at least we are not facing the type of animosity that comes with losing a family member to a cat that is sometimes faced by leopards or tigers.

What has been the most recent biggest set back in snow leopard conservation, and are you finding locals killing more or less leopards recently?
Adequate funding for our conservation programs remains the single biggest hurdle.  We’d love to be expanding our Community Based Conservation programs like the livestock insurance, livestock vaccination, and Snow Leopard Enterprises to more areas but we just don’t have the funds.  The expansion of these programs and development of new ones is the single biggest obstacle to protecting more snow leopards.  We are also seeing an expanding of threats with the expansion of mining into snow leopard habitat occurring in several snow leopard range countries.

Is there a magic number on leopards that would result of you all
saying: ok, we did our job close shop they will be fine, or will we always need to be involved in their conservation and remain aware of their situation?

This is a great question that we can’t answer yet but are working hard on it.  One of the reasons for launching the first ever long-term ecological studies of snow leopards is to develop an understanding of the cats needs to a level that will allow us to set a target of what it would mean for the snow leopard to have a healthy population that would allow it to come off the endangered species list.

Why did the Snow Leopard Trust catch on so well with selling products the locals made?
I think there are two main factors to why the handicraft program has really taken off.  The first is the simple concept that buying the products directly helps protect snow leopards.  That is what the program was founded on and it was a huge factor then and is huge today.  But the cause and the story only get you so far.  At the end of the day folks want good quality products if they are going to keep buying and our ability to raise funds to help develop new products and provide training to the herders has been key to upping the quality of the products and ultimately grow sales.

Is there any current legislation pending that may hurt or benefit the snow leopard that the average person should know about? And how do general American politics play a role in conservation?
There is a Big Cat Rare Canid bill that includes snow leopards but that is basically dead and I can’t think of any action people could take to help revive it.  The Snow Leopard Trust receives all its funding from either individuals, private foundations, or zoos so we really don’t have a lot of connection with American politics.  The possible changes to the tax laws that might impact charitable giving might have an impact on us.

What is it about the snow leopard (an animal so rarely even seen) that makes it so important for all of you to dedicate your life to save?

Once you look a snow leopard in the eye, as I think you know, there is something about the cats that really draws you to trying to help ensure their survival.  As George Schaller said a spark in the mountains would be lost if snow leopards were to ever become extinct.  On the more practical side because the Snow Leopards are the keystone species for the high dry mountains of Central Asia if they were to be lost the entire ecosystem would be failing.  So saving the snow leopard has as a much broader impact on wildlife conservation than just the cats themselves.  And finally I truly believe in the Trust’s approach to Community-Based Conservation.  If the Trust’s approach was save the cats and forget the people in the region I wouldn’t be a part of the Trust.  For many reasons, most of the practical, I don’t think you can save snow leopards without forming true partnerships with the people who share the landscape with the cats everyday.

With recent radio collaring showing just how large of a territory these cats roam, how will that information help the trust and its research?
This is some of the really important data that is helping us be better conservationists.  What the early radio collar data is showing is very large home ranges for the cats.  And we are fairly certain that the size of their ranges is not being driven by food alone.  So while we don’t yet know why they are using such a big area we are fairly certain it isn’t to search for food since they are leaving areas with good wild sheep and goat populations which is the staple of the cats diet.  What this means for conservation is that most current protected areas are just too small to ensure the cats survival.  So while protected areas are important they are not sufficient for protecting snow leopards.  This adds to the importance of working with the communities in snow leopard habitat because we know the cats are going to be sharing the same space given their large home ranges.

There are some great organizations out there like the Zoological Society of London that seem to have their name on many conservation groups pages listed as supporters. Hats off to those in the captive field helping the projects that directly benefit the wild species. We all know how budgets in this economy can be reduced and sadly the contributions made to field projects get smaller. My thinking is that we in the captive field have roofs over our heads and food on our tables thanks to people’s desire to connect with nature and the fact that iconic species like the big cats draw people in to zoos and parks around the world. So the least we can do is pay them back by supporting conservation projects. Sort of a ask not what these animals can do for us, but what can we do for them mentality, which sometimes gets forgotten with the business side of what we do. With feline populations falling and re intro projects taking place or that will in the near future with lynx, cheetahs, Amur leopards, one can throw a good argument towards the importance of a good captive population. And always look into just what places you are supporting to make sure they are on the good side of this industry and not a place that is adding to the bad. For those who just simply don’t like seeing a big cat in a cage, we can and must still find common ground in the fact that we do need to support the efforts out there that help protect these cats in the wild.
Keeping track and supporting programs carried out by ALTA in the far east as well as the captive tiger populations in zoos is Jimi van Beuzekom who is the Species management assistant for both the Amur leopards and tigers as well as the Sumatran tigers involved in the European Conservation Program, the EEP.

How many Sumatran Tigers (the smallest sub species of tiger in size) are left out there?
(JVB) There are at the moment about 300 Sumatran tigers in the wild. Of course we can’t give an exact number because we can never be sure if we know about every cat in the wild.
What is something unique about their conservation?
The thing that is unique in Sumatran tiger conservation is that the Sumatran tiger is the most endangered tiger species along with the Malayan tiger. There is no other tiger species with less population in the wild. Also the location is unique. The name Sumatran tiger explains already that the tiger lives in the wild in Sumatra.

Captive Sumatran Tiger-Sandstone , MN.
What has been the most recent biggest road block in the captive EEP Sumatran Tiger program, and what is the hope in the future to overcome this? And can you explain the plans for the new tiger centre and how can people help?
I assume that you mean the new tiger enclosure in ZSL when you are talking about the tiger centre.  This enclosure will be over 5 times bigger than the one we have now and will be 2400m2. Also it will be an experience for the visitors to walk around and “through” the enclosure and they will have to search for the tigers. There will also be poles which are substitutes for trees and food for the tigers will be on top of it so they will have to climb in the pole. This is similar to the wild. People can donate through the website or send in cheques to ZSL mentioning that it is for Tiger SOS, but they can also hold fundraising events. A list of examples for fundraising can be found at: http://www.zsl.org/tiger-sos

Is there a magic number of sorts you would always like to have globally in captivity, and how realistic is it to work globally with other programs and not just the EEP on its own?
Another part of that-is it frustrating at all to see the number of "generic" tigers breeding in private hands in the US and or outside the breeding programs (one could argue they can offer some value in educating the public about the wild tigers, or the flip side that they are using up resources that could be applied to other tigers) while the SSP in the states for instance, at times struggles for space, and to keep its numbers up?
Preferably we would have no animals in captivity and only in the wild. Unfortunately that can only happen if the habitat will come back, the wild population has to increase and become stable. This hopefully will happen in the future but it will take a lot of time before we get there. Also we will need to increase awareness across the world so that humans know about the problems and will start to work on bringing back the animals in the wild. We do work together globally by transferring tigers to other zoos who are not in the EEP but for instance are in the US. This means we will breed tigers globally and may get their cubs back in the EEP to breed from them. So it is realistic to work together with other programs around the world, but it does take time and effort of course. It is indeed frustrating to see that tigers are bred outside our programs but this can not be prevented unfortunately. We do hope to decrease the number of tigers bred outside the breeding programs across the world but this will take time and effort as well.

And any captive program has its critics, so how do you respond to the following argument that new enclosures cost millions to house a few tigers but field projects like anti poaching teams, field medicine etc that can go on to save wild tigers goes under funded?
That argument comes up a lot but it really is an argument that hasn’t been thought through because what most people don’t realise is that the breeding can only happen in captivity and tigers in captivity will not breed if they are in small cages that aren’t similar to their natural environment. Breeding is needed to do research to help the projects in the field and also for possible reintroduction of tigers in the wild. So basically we need bigger and more natural enclosures which cost money to help the tigers in the wild. Unfortunately this is something most people don’t realise.

How are your captive tigers helping?
 ZSL funds research in the wild by camera trapping, this means that a
researcher places cameras in boxes on trees and when a tiger walks by
this tree the camera takes a picture and we are able to see the tiger
and its condition. Actually I have a link to a video of the first
Sumatran tiger caught on camera with two cubs. This is also from a
camera trapping box.
Another thing that is funded is anti-poaching teams, fire fighting teams
and ZSL also does a lot about education. The education of course
includes the new tiger SOS campaign.

We have thousands of tigers here in the United States, but only a few hundred are in accredited breeding programs and one of the people In charge in keeping track of the breeding in these programs is Michael Dulaney who works out of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden as Curator of Mammals and is the Malayan Tiger SSP coordinator
What are the most recent wild & captive population numbers?
(MD) It is estimated that there are only 500 Malayan tigers left in the wild and 55 animals managed by the AZA’s SSP Program in North America. Unfortunately I cannot provide an accurate number of animals being held in captivity in Asia.

What is an aspect of Malayan Tiger conservation that is unique to this
species of feline rather that in trying to save a lion or leopard for example?
There are no other countries outside of Asia and North America that have a program for the Malayan tiger. This can make it challenging to obtain new bloodlines to bolster our population.

What has been the most recent biggest road block in the captive Malayan Tiger program, and what is the hope in the future to overcome this?
Though it hasn’t become a road block yet one of our biggest concerns will be the ability to consistently obtain new potential founders to import into our breeding program. Many of the captive tigers in Asia are related to our founders. All of our potential founders have reproduced and have living offspring so our nine founders are all represented and at some time in the future we will need to expand that number by obtaining more genetic diversity.

Is there a magic number of sorts you would always like to have globally in captivity, and how realistic is it to work globally with other programs and not just the SSP on its own?
Since there really isn’t any other country outside of Asia that has a program for Malayan tigers we are somewhat working on our own anyway. Our target population in the U.S. is 150 animals. But having said that we also have to look at not only the numbers but the genetic diversity as well, it does us little good if we have 150 animals that are all related to one another. With the right genetics we could have a very viable “genetic pool” with fewer animals but reality may mean more animals to obtain a healthy gene pool.

Is it frustrating at all to see the number of "generic" tigers breeding in private hands and or outside the breeding programs while the SSP at times struggles for space, and to keep its numbers up?
We can’t dictate what goes on in the private sector but the tiger SSP program now manages the “generic” population of tigers in AZA zoos so that will give us better control of the tiger spaces for the managed species.

Can you explain the importance of keeping the genetics as pure as possible as to why can't (if there ever becomes a time) you just release a generic tiger into s/e Asia?
Tigers have evolved to fill certain niches in certain regions. Because of this they differ in size, coat thickness and, to some extent, color. Cold climate tigers are usually larger, have thicker coats and slightly lighter coloration, all advantages to living in a cold, harsh climate. Tropical tigers are smaller with shorter coats and have a darker coat color, which aids them in the dappled lighted hot, humid regions of southeast Asia. If you take a generic (hybridized) tiger is its’ size as well as its’ coat thickness and color advantageous  to allow it to survive say in Northern Russia or might it be too heavy of a coat and lighter in color that would work against it in the tropical jungles of Asia?

How likely is it that a wild caught Malayan tiger (be it a nuisance
tiger, or one injured enough that it would not be able to be released
into the wild) will come into the program (in Asia and then to the US)
to help with the bloodlines? Or has this taken place already?
We actually did receive 5 wild caught "problem" tigers in 2003 which
more than doubled our founder representation since all five of those
have bred and contributed to the gene pool here in the U.S. It is much
more difficult to import wild caught endangered species and a special
case was made with the five animals we brought in. We are hopeful that
as new bloodlines are introduced into the captive population in Asia
that we would be able to import first or second generation animals from
new, unrepresented lines into the U.S. Much of that though will depend
on the political climate in that region at the time animals are

The endangered tiger has been on every ones radar for sometime and not too long ago everyone thought the African lion would not have to worry about the fate that surrounds the tiger, but now with wild lion numbers dropping it is now more important than ever to get the message out that lions now also need our attention and help. A lion roaring can make someones day during their visit to their local zoo. One of the people working in the captive lion field is Hollie Colahan the Coordinator of the Lion Species Survival Plan who works out of the Houston Zoo as the Curator of primates and carnivores.
Wild Lion in Maasai Mara Kenya, Africa
What are the most recent wild/captive population numbers, and do you see any hope in raising wild lion numbers? Will we have a Lion summit, as seen with the recent tiger one?
(HC) There are about 350 lions in AZA zoos. I don’t have current numbers on other regions right now. We haven’t done as much global management with lions as there has been with tigers. I think part of the reason for this is that lions have not been as much of a conservation focus. Until recently, their numbers were strong and it’s only in the last 15-20 years that we’ve seen serious declines in Africa. The European program (EEP, run by EAZA) has focused on Asian lions because of their critically endangered status, but they are now expanding to include some of the African subspecies too. One of my goals as SSP Coordinator is to communicate more with my counterparts in other regions in the coming years.
Wild numbers have decreased dramatically in the last 50 years, with some estimates indicating less than 30,000 left in only 20% of their historic range.

What is an aspect of lion conservation that is unique to this
species of feline rather that in trying to save a tiger or leopard for example?

Being such a social species, this makes lions different from the other large felids and this part of their biology has to be considered in conservation strategies. I think the biggest challenge is raising awareness since for years lions were doing very well in the wild and not seen as a conservation priority.  The actual threats are similar to other cats – habitat loss and human conflict.

What has been the most recent biggest road block in the captive Lion program, and what is the hope in the future to overcome this?
This program started in the early 90’s and the biggest initial challenge was getting the cats to breed. The numbers did not increase as quickly as everyone thought, and this created a shortage of lions for zoos. Lions tend to be a prominent exhibit in a zoo and are very popular with guests so increasing numbers became our top priority for both this reason and the health of the captive population. In the last few years, this situation has improved and we are now able to meet the needs of zoos and we have a genetically healthy, sustainable population.

Is there a magic number of sorts you would always like to have globally in captivity, and how realistic is it to work globally with other programs and not just the SSP on its own?
And can you explain why in Tigers keeping the Sumatran, Amur bloodlines are so important, but in Lions they have just been for the most part thrown into one big pot even though some claim to be 7 different sub species?
For SSP programs, our goal is to have a demographically and genetically sustainable population. The number we use to measure that is we want to maintain 90% of the genetic diversity of the wild population for 100 years. Lions exceed that goal so we are very lucky in that regard. Currently there are about 350 lions in AZA zoos, but about half of them are of unknown pedigree and are not part of the breeding population. We also fortunate to not have the space issues that many other programs are facing, although if we continue to be successful, we will eventually run into this. Again, the social nature of these cats makes them different – the good part is we can house them in groups, but the bad part is those groups have more females than males so eventually you end up with males that don’t have a group. We encourage institutions to design flexible holding space to accommodate those males and also to consider housing multi-male groups, which is occurs often in the wild.
The taxonomic issues with lions are different that tigers, and this is another example of why it’s so important to consider the individual species when developing a conservation strategy. Overall, the tiger subspecies are much more geographically isolated than lions and their taxonomy is probably considered to be more established than lions, which is still being debated by some (the lack of geographic isolation contributes to the lack of clarity in taxonomy). Of course the Asiatic Lion is the exception, they are managed as a separate captive population in Europe. There’s not the space to manage multiple subspecies of lions and there no plans to use the SSP population for reintroduction so this influenced our decision to focus on southern African lions but not manage at the sub specific level. This is a classic “lumpers vs. splitters” argument and there are good reasons for both strategies.

Any captive program has its critics, so how do you respond to the following argument that for instance in the US, the AZA/SSP only takes care of small percentage of the endangered species recorded by the IUCN, and that zoos possibly divert funds by those who donate to animal charities in asking for help to build million dollar plus enclosures, while field projects like anti poaching teams, field medicine etc..goes under funded?
There is no way zoos can focus on every endangered species and in some cases even makes more sense for us to focus on a less endangered counterpart. Decades ago, all of us believed that zoos would be “arks” to preserve captive populations for future reintroductions and of course that has proven more difficult than we imagined. SSPs have played a role in the reintroduction of some species however, and that should continue to be the goal when it is feasible. Loss of habitat will continue to be the limiting factor for most reintroductions for the foreseeable future however.
For all the other species, we must take the approach that these animals are ambassadors for their wild counterparts. An up close experience with a wild animal is a powerful thing. I am lucky enough to have traveled to Africa to see wild lions but before that, I saw lions at zoos, and that is what inspired me to pursue a career that led me here. At a zoo, people get to know individual animals, learning their names, birthdays, and following the significant events in their lives. This makes people care, and when people care, they will take action. Most people will never see a wild tiger or lion and many people will never even go in search of the wildlife in their own backyard. But they will come to a zoo, where we can introduce them to all of this and hopefully inspire them to take some sort of conservation action.
I won’t argue that field projects need funding, in fact I would encourage anyone that wants to support them directly to do so because that is the critical work that will save these species in the wild. But I also encourage people to support good zoos and sanctuaries because their work is important too, not just supporting the animals that live there, but also inspiring the next generation conservation heroes. So I guess I don’t feel these two things are mutually exclusive, and many zoos have strong conservation programs that put hundreds of thousands of dollars into field conservation. I believe that rather than diverting money from field projects, zoos raise more awareness and get more money to the field.  I think what’s most important is that people get involved, either with financial support, their time, or even their career choice.

And with that excellent answer I want to say a big THANK YOU to all those that took the time out to answer the questions. As it seems I could go on and on with questions about cats, but it is equally important to take action. The following web sites are just some of the excellent places to go for up to date information as well as to donate funds, to help save cats.

Wildlife Conservation Society (Amur Tigers)
Snow Leopard Trust
ALTA (Amur Leopards)
Sumatran Tiger Trust
African Wildlife Foundation (Lions)
Malayan Tigers

My 2009 Interview with Bengal Tiger Expert Dr. Dharmendra Khandal, from Tiger Watch in India:

About the author: Brian's Art for Animals is my grassroots effort combining photos and videos (and now blogs) to gain interest and funds (thanks to Google's ad sense) to support wildlife efforts out there.
Brian's Art for Animals YouTube www.youtube.com/user/briczar22 
is one of the most popular animal pages with over 27 million views.

All photos taken by  Brian's Art for Animals