Big cats are in trouble, from lions in Kenya to snow leopards in the Himalaya. The icons of the natural world — lions, cheetahs, leopards, jaguars and other top felines — are disappearing, victims of habitat loss and degradation as well as conflicts with humans. Large cats are keystone species of their ecosystems; losing them means not only loss of a majestic predator but destruction of a natural balance that affects an entire environmental system, including people.
To address this critical situation the National Geographic Society has launched the Big Cats Initiative, a comprehensive program that supports on-the-ground conservation projects, education and economic incentive efforts and a global public-awareness campaign.
Iconic Species Facing Extinction: The program’s first phase will target lions, whose populations are dying off rapidly across Africa. Lions once ranged across Africa and into Syria, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and northwest India; some 1.5 million lions roamed the earth two millennia ago. Since the 1940s, when lions numbered an estimated 450,000, lion populations have blinked out across the continent and now may total as few as 20,000 animals. Scientists connect the drastic decreases in lions in part to burgeoning human populations.
The first goal of the Big Cats Initiative is to halt lion population declines by the year 2015 and to restore populations to sustainable levels by 2020.
Grants Offered: As a first step, National Geographic will map all available data on lion populations, demographics and habitat. Using that information, National Geographic will launch a grant program that will fund a variety of conservation projects across the lions’ range. These include innovative projects focused on near-term results for saving lions, including anti-poaching programs and projects that test new techniques and technologies.
Proposals for education projects will be encouraged, especially those working directly with community stakeholders to help local populations understand the ecological and economic value of preserving lions and other big cats. Projects that establish economic incentives for local people to ensure long-term survival of lions will especially be a priority.
Emergency grants, such as the one made in 2008 by National Geographic to the Maasailand Preservation Trust in support of its Predator Compensation Fund, will be considered. That fund compensates local Maasai herdsmen for livestock kills by lions in and around Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, where the lion population has declined drastically in recent years. Reports from the field indicate that lion deaths have dropped considerably in some areas since the project began.
Leaders from Africa: The Big Cats Initiative is made up of conservationists led by National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Having lived and worked in some of Africa’s most remote areas for more than 25 years as authors and filmmakers, the Jouberts have embraced the cause of wildlife conservation, especially for big cats. Dereck and Beverly are active conservationists in Botswana, members of the IUCN Lion Working Group and founding members of the Chobe Wildlife Trust and of Conservation International in Botswana. The Jouberts also work in ecotourism and on building community partnerships.
“We no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to big cats,” said Dereck Joubert. “They are in such a downward spiral that if we hesitate now, we will be responsible for extinctions across the globe. If there was ever a time to take action, it is now.”
Partners and Funders Sought: National Geographic will collaborate with local and international NGOs, corporations, local community groups and individuals to work with saving lions and ensuring the future of this multiyear initiative.
More information on the Big Cats Initiative and applying for grants is available at www.nationalgeographic.com/bigcats.