Dwindling prey leaving big cats and other carnivores on the brink

3 Aug 2016

Snow leopards are under threat as their prey is vanishing, via Shutterstock

While direct interference by humans is still a major reason why large carnivores are under threat, prey depletion could prove their ultimate killer, according to a new report.

A new report into prey species across hundreds of different animals makes for worrying reading, with large carnivores’ dinner menu shortening by the day.

Endangered species

Widespread issue

Future Human

It found that the clouded leopard, tiger, dhole and Ethiopian wolf are in a particularly worrying state, with each having at least 40pc of its prey classified as threatened on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Replace the Ethiopian wolf with the leopard and the collection has more than 50pc of its prey in decline. Other carnivores like snow leopards are seeing prey declines, too. Sadly, protected areas won’t do the job, with just 6.9pc of the 494 prey species studied actually traversing in protected zones.

Unsurprisingly, of the carnivores that themselves are on the IUCN Red List, a higher rate of prey depletion was apparent.

Ethiopian Wolf endangered species

Ethiopian wolf has less prey now than in years past, via Shutterstock

Endangered species

“There is a strong relationship between prey and carnivore abundance,” reads the study, which was led by Christopher Wolf from Oregon State University College of Forestry.

“Approximately 10,000kg of prey supports about 90kg of large carnivore biomass, regardless of species.

“When sufficient prey is unavailable, large carnivore populations will decline, possibly becoming locally extinct. This can be compounded by large carnivore conflicts with livestock, which increase as carnivores search for alternative food sources.”

The study shows just how complicated conservation is, with numerous stakeholders needing to come together to try and thrash out a plan to help big cats and other predators.

Tigers and wolves

Earlier this year, a report into tiger habitats around the world found that a doubling (and even trebling) of numbers in the wild is possible, as long as the remaining forested areas where they live survive.

Last summer, we spoke with Mike Balzer, an Englishman charged with heading up the WWF’s Tigers Alive initiative. At the time, he was hopeful that the drop in the number of wild tigers around the world – which has gone from 100,000 at the start of the 20th century, to just 3,200 now – had stopped.

Tiger Endangered Species

Tigers need significant amounts of prey to survive, via Shutterstock

National, rather than international, approaches can work on occasion, too. For example, Yellowstone National Park in the US has worked wonders on wolf populations.

However, in many examples of numbers bouncing back, human intervention is a common ingredient.

Large predators are said to be “ecologically important” in Wolf’s prey report. As well as keeping crop-damaging herbivores in check, they played a vital role in attracting tourists to developing countries.

“These results show the importance of a holistic approach to conservation that involves protecting both large carnivores directly and the prey upon which they depend,” reads the report.

Main snow leopard image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic