A recent study from the Oregon State University revealed that the six largest carnivores in the world have lost more than 90 percent of their historic range.
The researchers mapped the current range of 25 large carnivores and compared them with historic maps from 500 years ago.
“Of the 25 large carnivores we studied, 60 percent (15 species) have lost more than half of their historic ranges,” said researcher Christopher Wolf.
“As many carnivores were historically sympatric [descended from one common ancestor] and are at high risk of future range contraction, conservation should be accomplished at the level of whole predator guilds [groups of species that exploit the same resources, or who exploit different resources in related ways] when possible,” the researchers wrote in their report.
What this means is that contracting the range of one species—either through physical barriers like fencing or the widespread use of land for herds of domestic cattle—can have dramatic effects on large carnivores’ ability to survive in their historic ranges.
“This means that scientifically sound reintroductions of large carnivores into areas where they have been lost is vital both to conserve the large carnivores,” Wolf said. “This is very dependent on increasing human tolerance of large carnivores—a key predictor of reintroduction success.”
The researchers also say that reintroduction programs would be most successful in rural areas with low human population density and limited agricultural and livestock-raising use.
“Also, more large protected areas are urgently needed for large carnivore conservation,” said co-researcher William Ripple.
The good news is that it is possible to help these animals by changing human attitudes about them.
“Many large carnivores are resilient, particularly when human attitudes and policy favor their conservation,” the researchers wrote. “This helps to explain the large carnivore recoveries observed in Europe and elsewhere (e.g., gray wolves in the continental United States).”
Additionally, the relationship between increasing agriculture use and range contractions can be limited when predator-friendly agriculture methods are used.
But human exploitation of former large carnivore ranges isn’t the only thing we need to be on the lookout for.
“In the face of newer threats like anthropogenic climate change, it is critical to continue to monitor large carnivore ranges to ensure the future of these species,” the researchers conclude.
Ultimately, the stability of large carnivore populations is highly dependent on human behavior. Whether that involves evolution of agriculture and ranching methods or limiting the effects of climate change, the ultimate success of reintroducing these species in their historic ranges is dependent entirely on us.