Wild cats play vital roles in almost all the environments where they occur. For that reason, aiding their recovery can also help to achieve quantifiable progress on many of our planet’s urgent environmental goals. As some of the most monitored species on Earth, cats are clear and compelling indicators of biodiversity. They can be measured in a timely, cost-effective way, and their numbers tell a story that — for better or worse — can offer a litmus test for nature and climate.
Focusing on wild cats is efficient thanks to their enormous ranges and high-value habitats, which allows us to protect biodiversity and climate under the umbrella of cat conservation. The 40 wild cat species occupy 74 percent of the earth’s landmass and overlap with 75 percent of its Key Biodiversity Areas, the most critical sites for nature on our planet. Pumas, which inhabit large swaths of North and South America, alone overlap with over 12,000 terrestrial vertebrates. Nearly all of the world’s remaining wild lions live in African savannas, which play a key role in carbon retention.
As keystone species, the big cats, especially, play a critical role in their environments by supporting, and even increasing, biodiversity and overall health. Pumas are “ecosystem engineers,” whose interactions with hundreds of other species profoundly influence the structure and function of their habitats and the wildlife therein. For example, puma kills feed all kinds of wildlife, from elk to birds to beetles, creating intricate webs that help to hold ecosystems together.
Moreover, cats help preserve nature’s contributions to people, from food, water, and livelihoods to carbon storage and buffers against disease. Studies on jaguar conservation strategies show that jaguars might play a protective role for other species and their high-quality habitat range-wide. This has massive implications for people. Jaguar range, which overlaps with most of the Americas’ tropical forests, provides 17 percent of the world’s carbon storage and sequestration, directly benefiting 53 million people in Latin America. While more research is needed, it is safe to say that all of us benefit from an intact jaguar habitat, so critical are their forest homes to mitigating climate change.
Despite species’ clear role in protecting biodiversity and climate, species conservation is often perceived as a limited way to preserve nature. Decades ago, saving entire ecosystems became the rallying cry for transformative environmental policy, shifting institutional investment and government priorities.
There has never been a more opportune time for governments and financial institutions to reconsider this false dichotomy. The delegates at COP15 are set to embark on the final stage of negotiations on a new global biodiversity agreement. Raising the ambition needed to achieve its goals will be possible only by recognizing that species and ecosystem approaches are compatible; indeed, protecting cats requires protecting entire ecosystems. Yet, if we neglect species-specific conservation, ecosystems become vulnerable to the “empty forest syndrome” that has afflicted many of our tropical landscapes, where overhunting and poaching have depleted wildlife. In today’s world, landscape-level conservation alone is not sufficient to halt extinctions.
Tigers provide a compelling example. After decades of intensive recovery efforts range-wide, tiger numbers are rebounding. These programs have increased biodiversity, carbon storage, water availability and livelihoods. Areas with tigers are better protected from poaching and illegal activities that result in habitat degradation. A single tigress in India has been credited with generating more than $100 million in tourist revenue. Without these species-specific investments, it’s unlikely that the broader benefits would have been realized.
Having failed to fully implement any of the 2020 goals adopted in the last global biodiversity agreement of 2010, governments are seeking clarity on what it will take to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and how to measure progress. Wild cats can help. We know how to protect, recover and monitor them, and we also know that doing so will help governments fulfill their commitments on biodiversity, climate and health. But despite our increased understanding of the connections between these environmental crises, we lag in creating vital links among them to effect transformative change.
This is where cats’ power as flagship species comes in. Cats are charismatic animals with boundless appeal and cultural significance for billions of people worldwide. Their sheer geographic overlap with humans and dependence on the same air, water and cover means that their survival and ours are inextricably linked.
At a time when the world gathers to solve the biodiversity crisis, let’s not forget the power of species to bring us together. A focus on recovering our wild cats can help to rally the ambition needed to halt extinctions, restore biodiversity and reshape our relationship with nature.
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