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Beautiful color plates of the Asiatic Golden Cat, by renowned illustrator Priscilla Barrett

Princeton University Press

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Carnivores of the World by Dr. Luke Hunter

Rating:

Star5

 

Interview with Carnivores of the World author Dr. Luke Hunter, big-cat expert and President of Panthera, foremost wild cat conservation organization on the planet.

Princeton University Press

The timing of Carnivores of the World couldn’t be better. With human populations skyrocketing, urbanization increasing and habitat for our top-tier predators shrinking daily, the conversation about how much ‘wild’ we really need, and whether predators have a place in the planet’s increasingly cramped landscape, is heating up.

Add the political and human angst of a global recession and dwindling resources, and sometimes it feels like a losing battle to keep all the plates spinning.

In fact, in some places like the US, crucial apex predators like wolves have become a politically divisive hot-button issue, often turning otherwise amiable folks into warring adversaries.

So, when Princeton University Press asked if I would be interested in reviewing their newest publication called Carnivores of the World by Dr. Luke Hunter, of course I said “Yes”.

When they asked if I would be interested in interviewing the president of Panthera, Dr. Hunter himself, I could hardly contain my excitement.

In light of the stark reality of escalating global extinctions (for instance the recent pronouncement of the extinction of the Western Black Rhino in the wild), it becomes painfully obvious that the future for lions, cheetahs, bears, wolves, African wild dogs and other ‘hard to live with’ creatures – animals that kill for a living – hangs precariously in the balance, at the mercy of what humans decide to do next.

With these questions in mind, I drafted interview questions for Dr. Hunter while thumbing through my review copy of Carnivores of the World.

Surprisingly heavy for its size and filled cover to cover with sumptuous illustrations by the very talented Priscilla Barrett, Carnivores of the World is a unique guide showcasing 245 terrestrial species of true carnivorous mammals. Some, like lions and tigers, are iconic and easily recognized while many, like the resilient Chinese Mountain Cat, the strikingly-patterned banded linsang or unlikely-looking broad-striped vontsira (a distant relative of the mongoose family) will fill viewers with the thrill of discovery, and delight the kid in all of us with their improbable and eye-catching patterns.

Now was my chance to ask Dr. Hunter, President of one of the foremost carnivore-conservation organizations in the world, what the future holds for some of the most magnificent creatures ever to stalk planet Earth.

Q: This is a gorgeous and beautifully produced book, Luke. It’s comprehensive and timely. What caused you to take on this monumental project at this time?

A: (Chuckles at term ‘monumental’, then in a charming deep Australian accent:) There wasn’t a complete guide available anywhere, and I saw a real need for an up-to-date reference.

Q: Luke, you love carnivores, and the wild cats, especially. Was there an “ah-ha!” moment when you became interested in carnivores and knew that you wanted to devote your life to them?

A: I’m told that when I was three and in the hospital with tonsillitis, (had my tonsils removed), my Grandmother gave me a present– just some cheap little plastic toys, a tiger and a lion. You know the kind – they were made in Hong Kong. From that moment on I was fascinated. I loved the big cats when I was three and have ever since. By the way, I have an extensive collection of figurines I hoarded as a kid, but I still have the original little plastic lion and tiger that started it all.

Q: There’s a lot of pressure on, and concern about, the large predators of the world right now. Even right here at home, in the US, particularly regarding the Florida panther and the Grey Wolf, there is a deep divide between those who want to conserve them at all costs, those who want to ‘manage’ them, and those who want to eliminate them from the wild entirely.

Starting with your specialty, the cats, I hear debate about whether or not the Florida panther is truly a distinct species and does it warrant special protection? Is the Florida Panther the same as the Mountain Lion out west?

A: Yes, in fact there is only one species, Puma concolor; it is found from Argentina to Wyoming to Florida. So, the cougars that live in Yellowstone are the same species as the ‘panthers’ that live in Florida. However there are slight genetic differences between them, races or ‘ecotypes’, which need to be respected and conserved as much as possible. By doing so, we conserve unique local adaptations which we might not even know of, but which help adaptable species like mountain lions thrive in a wide variety of habitats and respond to changes in the environment.

The Florida panther is, like most tropical subspecies, somewhat smaller and with a slightly different color than the cats in the West. There are enough differences between the western cats and the southeastern population that the Florida panther is recognized and managed as a distinct ecotype .

However by the 1990s, numbers of the Florida panther were so low due to various factors (human development, historic hunting etc.,) that inbreeding was becoming a real problem and the population was in decline. So, in 1995 an infusion of new genes was provided via animals from Texas. By that time all but about 100 of east coast panthers had been extirpated.

Since the species has historically existed throughout the contiguous North American continent, it is still essentially the same animal across its range, so the benefit of increased vigor and genetic diversity from breeding with Texan animals was weighed against losing the Florida form entirely to the effects of inbreeding. So as a last resort, the move was made to revitalize the Florida population with an infusion of new genes – it was important to preserve what we could of the struggling Florida population.

In general, temperate variations of any species tend to be larger than tropical populations, which is true of panthers as well as wolves in the US, but this is largely a result of adaptation to each particular environment and the prey species available in it. So yes, there were slight differences with the new blood, but species will adapt to fit the conditions of the region they’re in, given a chance.

The population of Florida panthers is now rebounding, as was proved by the dispersing panther that was illegally shot by a hunter in south Georgia last year. Despite the loss, the fact that cats are moving north is a great sign that the population is starting to grow. In fact new habitat areas, including perhaps in Georgia are currently being evaluated for the possibility of establishing a second or even third population.

Of course, when it comes to carnivores, biological carrying capacity and human tolerance aren’t the same thing, which makes conservation efforts tricky when it comes to wild carnivores.

Q: There has been a lot of controversy in the ongoing discussion about the wolves re-introduced into the US in 1994 and 1995 as being a different species (a bigger and supposedly more dangerous species) than the one that had existed here naturally before. Is this true?

A: No. There is only one species of wolf in North America, the grey wolf, Canis lupus. There are very few genetic differences between the populations across the continent, and wolves have historically ranged all across the contiguous states from Canada down to northern Mexico. Claims that the re-introduced wolves (which were captured and translocated from Canada) are somehow ‘introduced’ or non-native species are false.

Even when the grey wolf was nearly extirpated from the US there were still small populations holding on in northern Montana, the Great Lakes region, Minnesota and Michigan. But all in all they’d pretty much been exterminated from most of the United States.

The 29-30 wolves released into Yellowstone and the 30 released into state forest land in Idaho are the same species that was there before, with only slight regional variations – and of course over the course of their range they will adapt to local conditions. The populations have historically interbred, anyway.

I’ve heard some ‘anti-wolf’ voices attempting to classify them as ‘injurious’ or ‘invasive’ species to justify their eradication, but they are incorrect. The grey wolf is the same animal in the Rockies as it is in Canada and even down into Northern Mexico.

As for the wolf debate in the US, I think many of the arguments against wolves aren’t about the science, they are mainly about people and politics. I think a lot of ranchers are really worried because it’s a really hard way to make a living, and in many areas it’s declining, especially with the economy and a changing world acting against them – and I do feel for them. But when you look at the science, it shows pretty convincingly that wolves are mostly not the culprits. On a statewide basis, they are actually responsible for a tiny percentage of stock losses compared to all the other reasons that livestock dies. But like a lot of carnivores, they have become a scapegoat for a lot of other social and political issues.

Q: I know you love all the carnivore species, Luke. But if you could draw attention to one species that you feel really needs the spotlight for conservation efforts right now, which would it be?

A: I’m really glad you asked that. The African lion, despite being so well known and visible in safari parks and such, is in grave danger because they are a sort of conservation blind-spot. We need to stop their decline while we still have a little time to do it. There are high densities in game parks and popular parks and reserves like Kruger National Park (South Africa), where you are practically guaranteed to see lions if you go; but this gives a false impression of the species’ viability in the wild.

I’d ask to put out the word that we need to increase conservation urgency of these spectacular cats outside of the few, well-protected game parks. If we don’t escalate our efforts now, those few populations may be all we end up with.

It’s true, lions and other large predators like tigers and bears can be hard to live with, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important – large carnivores play essential roles in ecosystems, as we are now seeing with the return of the wolf to the Rockies- or that its impossible to conserve them. Lions are a special challenge. Since they live in large groups and prey on large ungulates, they require large areas of wilderness with decent populations of wild prey. Where people and their livestock replace wild prey, lions have few options and conflict with people is inevitable. And I really feel for the people struggling in these remote areas, they really have very few options and livestock losses to predators like lions are a real burden to their survival.

Q: So what is the key, then, to helping these people exist alongside lions – so that they can make a living and wildlife can have space and freedom to live, too?

A: I think the key to conserving lions really rests with helping the people, and that’s the focus of Panthera’s lion projects across Africa- by helping pastoral people with improved husbandry, we reduce their problems with lions and remove their motivation for wanting lions dead.

Alongside that, I think urbanization and the move to cities will help to save lions. In some areas like Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania, for instance, there’s still a lot of very wild land left. Rural families and their kids in these remote areas want the same things we do– the kids want to go to the cities and get an education, the families want access to amenities, health care, electricity and so on. A lot of people are leaving the countryside, which allows it recover somewhat from human settlement and allows the recovery of wildlife populations..

A lot of the development community doesn’t like this because they think that people are being forced off their land for wildlife. But I ask then, ‘would you choose to sleep in a hut with a dirt floor, with no running water and the nearest hospital a day’s walk away?” Its unfair to not give people the choice. I know what I would choose. If more people choose to leave those remote wild areas and find better lives in urban areas, with health care, sanitary conditions and access to better education, more areas will be left for lions and, in fact, all wildlife. Everyone wins.

Of course, the same process took place here in the US, which is allowing populations of large carnivores to recolonise their original range. Slowly the cougar in North and South Dakota is gradually moving east, with cats appearing in Chicago, Oklahoma and one even made it to Connecticut this year. So I think there is hope for large carnivores. We still have a long way to go, but we do have solutions, we just need to get them implemented far more widely, and accepted more widely by the people who live alongside carnivores.

Note from author: The magnificent carnivores of our planet, from Tigers to Bush Dogs, Striped Weasels to Giant Pandas, adorable Otters and Pygmy Spotted Skunks to the elegant and gravely endangered Maned Wolf, urgently need our help. Nearly all are teetering on the brink – and, in most instances, it’s entirely our fault.

Please consider getting involved in the conservation of wild carnivores, and learn about how apex predators create a beneficial trophic cascade of improved habitat and enriched biodiversity in their ranges. Take them out of nature, and the vitality of places from Yellowstone National Park to the wilds of Africa, gradually withers.

Scientists around the globe concur: We need our apex predators. Carnivores, no matter what their size, offer crucial benefits to the rest of life on our planet.

Note: To see images of interior of book, downloadable range maps, author photo, video interviews and more, please see full interview on BirdpondsBlog.com.

For more information about carnivore conservation issues or the work Panthera is doing to protect the terrestrial predators of the globe, please visithttp://www.panthera.org/

Carnivores of the World by Luke Hunter, is available in paper-back or cloth, throughPrinceton University Press (Princeton Field Guides).

About the Author*

Dr. Luke Hunter serves as Panthera’s President where he oversees the direction and strategy of all of the organization’s global wild cat conservation programs. Before joining Panthera, Dr. Hunter headed the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Great Cats Program and taught wildlife ecology at several universities in Australia and South Africa.

* Courtesy Panthera.org

 

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