Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Big cats

Snow leopard (C) Carolyn Sheppard
This amazing animal is a snow leopard, one of the world's endangered big cats. "Snow Leopards are suspected to have declined by at least 20% over the past two generations (16 years) due to habitat and prey base loss, and poaching and persecution. Losses to poaching were most severe in the former Russian republics in the 1990s" (IUCN). So this amazing creature who certainly has a wonderful pelt, is now struggling for survival.

This guy though, didn't seem to be struggling. In fact, although he was in a smallish enclosure, he seemed happy and content. Like most animals bred in captivity, he doesn't know what he's missing I guess (eg being shot at and excoriated or simply starving to death).

I am not a great fan of captive big cats - the best place for these animals is in their natural habitat. But their habitat is receding, there is less and less food, and we could be amongst the last couple of generations to ever even stand a chance of seeing this animal in the wild.

So how did I get not only to see these magnificent animals, but also to hand-feed one (through the bars, not in the cage)? I visited the Cat Survival Trust (CST), which I was introduced to by a friend.  They are not a zoo and not a pet cat rehoming charity, but an organisation who, since 1976, have been working to help the world's rare big cats - especially those kept in captivity.

They have an amazing record of longevity for their cats, which Terry (the Director of CST) attributes to good food and, especially, purified water. He is obviously passionate about the work the charity does and his affection and admiration for the animals shines through.

As well as acting as a 'rescue' home for big cats - some who cannot stay at their zoo of origin or who are taken from unregistered or irresponsible private owners - CST also works in conservation and has purchased a tract of land in Argentina specifically to ensure that the cats in that area are protected. Managing a large reserve in Southern America is admirable, and going to visit animals in the wild would be challenging to say the least, but I was privileged to meet some of these amazing animals at CST in Hertfordshire.

Snow leopards are a particular success story, with a content breeding pair providing additional animals for zoos and collections around the world who are building up the population with a view to release back into the wild. Sounds easy, but my goodness, it isn't. One of the problems with captive breeding isn't just the animals' reluctance (as the Pandas in Scotland have demonstrated) or even enthusiasm, but gene pools and potential homes/relocation/care etc.

They say that a genetically stable group of any animal should have at least 200 individuals. Amur leopards (which you can also see at CST) have about 40 left in the wild. We don't have that many of some species in captivity, and many of them are related and you can't interbreed, or cross-breed, without causing more problems. 

Is captive breeding the answer? Long term, probably no, short term we have little option if we do not want to lose some species all together (which inevitably will happen).  We need to reduce the impact that humans have on wild habitats, change our own habits and reduce consumerism. That's not going to happen short or long-term I fear. Perhaps we can, with a concerted effort, create protected habitats where our endangered species can survive, but with the global pollution of air, sea and river - even there they won't be safe.

Still, as the starfish story goes, we can make a difference even to one, so I for one won't give up my commitment to conservation. 

More photos of my visit to CST here http://www.flickr.com/photos/8100559@N04/

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