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Dr. Byron Weckworth is the director of Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program and of Conservation Genetics. His research aims to address a wide spectrum of ecological and evolutionary questions pertinent to successful conservation. Byron’s goals at Panthera are to help produce rigorous scientific research and to work collaboratively to make such research accessible and applicable to the people and partner organizations that have the influence to impact the conservation of wild cats.
What is the biggest question facing your field?
In conservation, we are grappling with how to halt and reverse the trends in biodiversity loss. This occurs at scales as small as specific populations of a species, like the Prairie Fringed Orchids or Banff Springs Snails, to entire ecosystems, such as the giant kelp forests of Alaska or Caribbean coral reefs. The threats to these species and ecosystems shift and change across similar scales, but all have the common denominator of being human-mediated.
For wild cat species the greatest threats relate to the loss of animals through poaching and retaliatory killings, and destruction and fragmentation of critical habitats. These are both direct impacts of human behavior and largely stem from our unquenchable thirst for natural resources, such as timber, oil and gas, mining and agriculture, including cash crops such as palm oil.
The biggest question is can we humans, as the most dominant species on the planet, alter our behavior to allow for wild places to stay wild and carnivore species to persist in healthy ecosystems?
Why is it significant?
Carnivores are located at the top of the pyramid when we describe trophic levels and food webs within ecosystems. These top level organisms, of which all cats are members, are the engines driving ecosystem function and the trophic cascades that optimize biodiversity. Look no further than Yellowstone National Park and the positive impacts on biodiversity that reintroduction of wolves had there following decades of absence from an ecosystem that had evolved with these apex carnivores.
It is also to our own species’ benefit to maintain biodiversity. For example, increased biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity, directly affecting food sustainability, whereas declines in biodiversity are directly linked to increased risk of emergent diseases that impact livestock, agriculture and our own health.
Wild cat species, such as snow leopards and lions, have significant cultural importance for the human populations with which they overlap. Additionally, healthy wild cat populations not only contribute to increased biodiversity, but also provide economic benefits derived from tourism and people who pay to observe and experience these wild places in hopes of glimpsing one of the enigmatic big cats.
Where is the answer likely to come from?
I wish I could say all the answers are found in science, but this question, and its related calamity, is beyond the bounds of evaluating empirical evidence and prescribing a solution. Science will play an important role in directing how and where to deploy particular conservation practices, but first we must invoke the will to act in the first place and address the duality of humans as both the cause and solution to the current extinction crisis.
True success will require altruistic action that is typically reserved for responding to natural disasters. However, to propose to solve it all at once relegates the problem to a rhetorical position. Instead, the problem must be divided and apportioned to the groups that are best positioned in particular ecosystems to have positive and timely impacts in government, industry and public domains. For example, Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, and our partners work with diverse stakeholder groups to build in-country capacity across different cat species’ ranges to improve the habitat, protection, and tolerance for wild cats that will allow for them to thrive.
IMAGE SOURCE: Li Juan