Rapid economic growth has pushed rare species of large carnivores to the brink of extinction, but ecologists have indicated that our appetite to once again live alongside big cats is increasing.
Scientists at the University of Reading have studied the relative fortunes of 50 species of large carnivores around the world over the past 50 years. They found that socioeconomic factors, such as quality of life, were more closely related to the decline of large species of carnivores, than to purely environmental characteristics such as habitat loss.
The first study of its kind suggests that the best way to save carnivores, such as lynxes, bears and lions, is to encourage a sustainable model of social and economic development, rather than focusing solely on issues such as climate change. As people get richer, their tolerance of big cats and other carnivores increases.
Dr Thomas Frederick Johnson, who led the study while at Reading, said, “Our habitat and climate have been degraded and chaotic to make room for rapid economic development. We know this has led to a decline in biodiversity, but our research has found that this economic development is causing much steeper declines.” than anyone could have expected or imagined.
“In the midst of rapid development, people seem less tolerant of carnivores, conflicts break out, and we think incidents of poaching and persecution skyrocket.
“The decline in numbers of large carnivores is stark. Lions and tigers are already absent from more than 90% of their historical range. At home, many carnivorous species have already been hunted in the UK, such as lynx, wolf and bear.”
The study published in Nature Communications In partnership with the UK’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology and the Argentine Institute of Subtropical Biology, the research team took part in examining how changes in the socio-economic system can enhance carnivore recoveries.
While rapid economic development is pushing species to the brink of extinction, they have also led to massive improvements in our quality of life. However, analysis by Dr. Johnson and fellow ecologists suggests that once people achieve a high quality of life and economic development slows, a tipping point is reached and oppressed species have a chance to recover.
The researchers suggest that the recovery is related in part to better habitat protection in developed economies, but also to a more harmonious relationship between people and carnivores. What was once considered a dangerous pest is now recognized as an important component of our ecosystems and culture.
The resurgence of large carnivores can already be seen in Western Europe, where improved quality of life and slower economic development have allowed gray wolf populations to increase by 1,800% since the 1960s.
Dr Johnson said: “This gives us hope that we can restore lost ecosystems and we could one day see lost carnivores return to British shores. But we also need to think about how we can save wildlife in countries that are currently experiencing rapid growth, where it is potentially species extinction.
“Our results suggest that a slower, more sustainable economic model could protect carnivores, but that also risks keeping people in poverty for longer. We urgently need to develop solutions that can support both biodiversity and people, and the developed economies of the world probably need it.” To provide more financial assistance to protect our global biodiversity.