Nerdy Notes: The Vanishing Cats

A Siberian Tiger wanders through the trees. (C)2006 Mila Zinkova

It is almost impossible—if not impossible indeed—to explain to those who don’t already understand, why it is such a danger to lose the natural wonders of our world.  In the end, perhaps this conveys a depressing truth… that it isn’t all that important after all, that it isn’t such a danger.  So many species have become extinct already, what could a few more matter?

Nevertheless, for the purposes of this post, we will accept, without any more ado, the supposition that it is important that species are endangered and on the fringes of extinction.

Throughout this blogger’s childhood, and even to this day, there were and are images and stories of some of the classic, amazing feats of nature—elephants, for example.  And blue whales.  Lions, tigers, and bears, and so on.  As children, and as adults who don’t look any more deeply into the matter, we may take it for granted that these creatures are just part of the world, as are the mountains, mosquitoes, and men.

In fact, however, the present generations may be among the last to experience some of these great animal wonders.  Big cats, in particular, are vanishing at an incredible rate.  That they are vanishing is not, itself, as concerning as the apathy surrounding their disappearance.  Although there are movements here and there to keep the animals alive, the people of the world at large either are not concerned or are not able to manifest their concern in ways which can retard the evanescence of nature’s great felines.  It is a fully realistic suggestion that the grandchildren of today’s college students may live in a world in which there is no such thing as a tiger.  They will just be fictions from the past.

Tigers, for the layman, are those species of big cats which have spots or stripes.  Lions, though similar, are usually solid-colored.  In the wild, tigers are typically found throughout southern and eastern Asia, whereas lions are almost exclusive to Africa and a very small part of the Indian subcontinent.

Today, there are 5 species of tigers left in the world.  There were many more in the past; no one knows for certain how many.  While we may imagine that tigers roam the wild in great numbers, that is not the case at all.  In fact, biologists estimate that in all the Earth, there are only about 3,200 tigers left.

The range of tigers, both in the past and today. Very little is left of their natural habitats, and that amount is dwindling. (source:

Lions are not faring much better.  Though there may be as many as 40,000 lions alive to date, their population has been almost halved every decade.  They are vanishing at a rate similar to tigers, with only a slightly more distant fate if things continue as they are today.  One of the reasons for this is that lions—and most other big cat species—are not particularly nice to one another.  A hunter may kill a single adult male lion—for its mane, say—without realizing that many more will die as a result.  When a pride of lions loses its alpha male, almost without fail, another lion will take over the pride.  When this happens, the new leader of the pride will kill any cubs under two years old.  Vicious as this sounds, it means that when a poacher, for example, kills one lion, he may actually be causing the deaths of up to a dozen.  This is not a rare occurrence, either.  Consistently, when a lion takes over a pride, the first order of business is killing off the existing youths.

Beyond lions and tigers, the situation is even less hopeful.  Cheetahs, jaguars, and leopards are all endangered, with many subspecies having already become extinct.  The Amur leopard, for example, is currently down to about 40 living individuals.  Even the most optimistic researchers do not expect the species to last much longer.

There are many groups which have worked diligently to protect endangered species, including the big cat species.  Some of these groups are more significant than others.  The nation of South Africa, for example, has established several national parks which provide safe haven for lions found nowhere else that far south.  India, also, has done work to protect the very rare and highly endangered Asiatic Lions—of which only a few hundred are known to exist.  Private groups also work on saving the big cats, but they come up against incredible barriers.  Though no one is actively campaigning for the extinction of lions and tigers, industrialization, deforestation, loss of water supplies, and climate change are collectively reducing habitable areas for these species at an alarming rate.  At the same time, hunting lions is still permissible in many parts of Africa, which depend on the thrilling sport for tourist dollars.  Where hunting is banned, poaching is rampant.  Given the rough terrain of inland southeast Asia and central Africa, it is very difficult, where not altogether impossible, to patrol the millions of acres of wilderness which used to be home to the big cats.

African lions on a lazy afternoon. (source:

Among the most active private conservation groups is the Wildlife Conservation Society.  WCS responds not just to threats to big cats, but to almost every other sort of animal as well.  The Society’s activities include everything from campaigning governments to establish protected areas and prosecute poachers to physically going into the wild and rescuing harmed animals.  The Society makes it easy to donate to their cause.  Currently, they have a program in which donors can purchase postage stamps to help fund programs geared towards strengthening poaching-prevention measures.   The Wildlife Conservation Society’s interests include everything from manatees to hippos to bald eagles to coral reefs.

Although we cannot necessarily express why it would be a terrible loss to lose the world’s big cats—and although we cannot say with any confidence that measures intended to prevent extinction will succeed—we can at least be glad that we, in our time, got to live in a world with such magnificent beasts.  In the opinion of this blogger, now is the time to schedule that safari you’ve been putting off… or at least take a trip to the zoo.  Somehow, when you see a spotted leopard or buffalo or lemur up close, you realize the ineffable magic which makes them such valuable inhabitants of our world.

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs, an editor at The Jet Fuel Review.  He is an Aviation major, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer.  Mark is a sophomore and will be working a few hours as a tutor in the Writing Center in the 2011-2012 school year.

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