Cat Chat

This post is a first for me, and a little different from others that I have done, as the roles have been reversed. Instead of being the interviewer, I have become the interviewee! I was asked by Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue, who I met at the Jackson Hole Conservation Summit, to participate in their Cat Chat series. Carole and I chat about my blog, wild cats, some of the issues facing the species, how to cope when faced with negative or overwhelming news and much more. Please feel free to leave comments below!

Big Cat Rescue, located in Tampa Florida, is one of the largest accredited sanctuaries in the world dedicated to abused and abandoned big cats. Their mission is to provide the best home they can for the cats they care for, to end abuse of big cats in captivity and prevent extinction of big cats in the wild. They are the home to about 80 plus cats including lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and more.

One of their main goals is to work towards ending the abuse of wild cats by ending the private possession and trade in exotic cats through legislation and education.

If you are a U.S. resident one of the most important things you can do currently is support the The Big Cat Public Safety Act HR1818 which is a is a federal bill that would end the private possession of big cats as pets, end cub petting, and limit exhibitors to those who do not repeatedly violate the law. It bans private ownership and breeding of big cats with limited exemptions. You can make sure this law gets passed by contacting your members of Congress and asking them to champion the bill.

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Cat Summit Recap

A few weeks ago I attended the Jackson Hole Conservation Summit and Wildlife Film Festival where the focus was on wild cats. It ran from September 24 – 29 and was an intense and exciting week where biologists, conservationists, researchers, filmmakers and more converged to talk about wild cat conservation. With cat populations around the world in trouble and many facing imminent extinction, it was a timely and much overdue conference on how all stakeholders can work more efficiently to help save some of the worlds most iconic species.

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The conference was held at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, the main lobby window provided this spectacular and inspiring view

Having captured our imagination wild cats are forever embedded in our psyche and culture. They are both revered and feared, appreciated or exploited for their economic value and persecuted for doing nothing more than existing. Wild cats have the ability to unite or polarize people like no other animal on the planet – it is simply impossible not to have some sort of opinion on them.

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Where do We Stand? The first panel discussion and overview on issues surrounding cat conservation

The week-long event touched on many facets of cat conservation with one very important underlying message – time is running out for wild cats everywhere and we must work harder and better to save these magnificent and important predators.

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Landscapes and corridors panel discussion that examined a few important initiatives that are helping to keep wildlife connected to the wild

There was a tremendous amount of information to take in and with such great speakers there could have been an entire week just dedicated to the cat summit. Topics ranged from the general overview of threats facing wild cats, conservation efforts around the world, the illegal wildlife trade, trophy hunting, canned hunting, wildlife corridors, human-wildlife conflict and engaging local communities. Discussions also highlighted some of the important work being done to protect the smaller wild cats, how science and data can work together to help conservation and how storytelling can be used to inspire people to become more involved in conservation.

Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Carole Baskin, Ian Michler, Will Travers,Brent Stapelkamp, Cecil the lion, Born Free, Blood Lions, Big Cat Rescue,Jackson Hole, Wildlife Film Festival, Conservation Summit, Big Cats, Wild Cats, Jackson Lake Lodge, Grand Teton National Park

Cecil and beyond a discussion of high-profile animal stories in the media

For wildlife and conservation filmmakers this was an extremely important event and the biggest competition to date for the festival, almost 600 films were entered, with awards given out to films in various categories. During the week selected screenings took place throughout the day followed by filmmaker Q&A and, one of my highlights at the end of the festival included the premier screening, which played to standing room only, of Bob Poole’s new film Man Among Cheetah’s for Nat Geo Wild.

It was an exciting week where I learned a lot and met some fascinating people all who have important insights on wild cats and their conservation. In upcoming posts I will be  sharing more on some of the people behind the scenes as well as the projects and research they are currently working on.

Tea-Time with Leopards

Next time you sit down to enjoy a cup of tea, and if it happens to be a tea from India, know there is a very good chance that leopards at one time or another may have inhabited the tea garden where the leaves were harvested. Of course a literal tea-time with leopards is never recommended, but the reality is they are a very common resident of many tea gardens in the country.

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A recent study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) showed that leopards are partial to tea gardens in north-eastern India, but their presence does not necessarily mean conflicts with people. The study, a collaboration between the WCS, the National Centre for Biological Sciences-India, Foundation of Ecological Research Advocacy and Learning, and the West Bengal Forest Department, was done in highly populated areas that included tea gardens and forested area in the West Bengal state. The approximate 600 km area is part of the “East-Himalayan” biodiversity hot spot which includes small protected areas along with tea gardens, villages and agricultural fields. The study showed that leopards will avoid highly dense populated areas, but are partial to tea gardens as they provide ideal vegetation cover. Out of the four large cats in India which include tigers, lions and snow leopards, the leopard is the most adaptable and able to live in protected forests as well as on the edge of urban areas overlapping with humans.

The study mapped more than a 170 locations where people were injured by leopards and interviewed approximately 90 of those injured between 2009 and 2016. More than 350 leopard-human encounters were reported during this period, with five resulting in human fatalities.” No significant relationship was found between the probability of attack and probability of habitat-use by leopards.  Researchers noted that in the case of a rare attack it was accidental or defensive rather than predatory resulting in only minor injuries. Attacks were also likely to occur during the day, while people were working and in areas where the tea shrubs were shorter, denser and the land was relatively flat. The majority of the attacks happened between January and May when large sections of the gardens were disturbed for maintenance like pruning of tea bushes and irrigation.

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Leopard is scavenging on a dead gaur, a species of wild cattle. Credit: Kalyan Varma Image Phys.org

Like elsewhere in the world the study highlights the problems when human dominated spaces are shared with large predators like leopards. It identified particular hotspots of “conflict” and confirmed the importance of testing new methods to reduce human-leopard conflict. An early warning system, like making loud noises, alerting the animals to the presence of humans would provide enough time for them to move away, an approach that has already worked well in other areas.

In Assam, India’s northeast area, tea companies have already begun to implement practices to reduce conflict between humans and elephants, as well as prevent the loss of crops in a non-violent manner. Recognizing that as more habitat is lost due to humans wildlife will continue to seek refuge in the tea gardens and, by using fencing, corridors and specially built tiny reserves it will save the lives of both wildlife and people.

In a place where leopards have become “part of the tea garden habitat” tea estates are embracing policies and taking steps that promote co-existence. Many are certified by the Rainforest Alliance and abide by the Sustainable Agriculture Network which help to ensure that no wild animals were harmed or killed in the tea gardens.

Cost of Doing Business

Some would say wildlife is priceless, but do the same animals still hold ‘value’ when deemed an inconvenience or in the way of human progress? Take predators for example, who seem to become scapegoats or expendable when their interests and needs conflict with ours. Do we on a subconscious level see them as direct competition for space, food and resources? Can we co-exist with them and share or must we, by our actions or lack of, eliminate the competition?

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Whatever the reason they become one of two things – the forgotten victims, or in some cases the ‘poster animal’ for the cause helping to create awareness and positive change. We now know that everything in our environment is connected and all species including predators are vital for helping maintain a healthy balanced Eco-system. Organizations, researchers and even the average citizen are working harder than ever to ensure that these animals are given a voice and a chance to co-exist despite our continued pressure upon the natural world and their habitat. Along with the encouraging stories of progress we have made, are there cases in which the loss of wildlife is simply another cost of doing business?

A few years ago when I was writing the story about an ocelot who was photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains outside of Tuscon Arizona I started reading up on how a Canadian mining company HudBay Minerals Inc. was planning on building the Rosemont Mine, the third largest open-pit copper mine in the U.S., in the same area where the ocelot was discovered and where later the now famous jaguar El Jefe would be photographed. The discovery of the endangered ocelot would prompt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-evaluate their original report (biological opinion) on the impact of the mine. Conservationists said that there would be no way species like the ocelot and jaguar could survive, or co-exist if their habitat was destroyed by the mine.

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Male ocelot, photographed on May 14, is the fifth to be documented in Arizona over the past five years.

Fish and Wildlife Services would later issue their final biological opinion coming to the conclusion that the mine would cause “significant adverse impacts on many of the species” threatening not only predators but also endangered birds and fish. They went on to say that despite this, the number of measures that would be put in place by the mining company, such as the hiring of biologist to monitor effects on wildlife and creating permanent protected areas of conservation lands, it would “not jeopardize the continued existence of any of the 13 affected listed species” or hamper recovery of species like the jaguar despite destroying part of their habitat.

There has been mixed messages among the agencies tasked with reviewing the mine. An EPA report stated that the mine would have adverse consequences on the water system as well as several endangered species including fish, frogs and birds that reside near local streams. The Army corps of Engineers concluded that any measures taken would not fully make up for the “unavoidable adverse” impact of the mine even with appropriate measures taken. The U.S. Forest Service said that due to the 1872 Mining Law, which is still applicable today, the project cannot be denied.

Government agencies weren’t the only ones in disagreement with each other on the mine and, the value of a single jaguar seemed to be something that divided wildcat conservation groups. Panthera’s CEO, and leading expert on jaguars, Alan Rabinowitz wrote back in 2010 that the occasional cat crossing the border from Mexico does not mean they have established territory or that there is even suitable jaguar habitat left in the U.S. Southwest. His feelings remained the same and he told The Star that other reasons should be found to save the landscape especially when resources are needed elsewhere where the data supports evidence of concrete jaguar recovery. Wildcat researchers Aletris Neils and Chris Bugbee who had been studying El Jefe are on the other side and disagreed saying that every single jaguar was important and that the focus should be on recovery of the species to its former range. They believe jaguars can be brought back to the area and that the public must weigh in on the decision.

In a federally financed three-year study by the University of Arizona study tracing the paths of jaguars and ocelot across Southern Arizona, researchers placed remote cameras at 250 sites across 16 mountain ranges capturing photos of a jaguar, ocelot, bobcat and mountain lion at two sites in the northern Santa Ritas. Both times, all four species were photographed within a 24-hour period, the researchers said. Melanie Culver, the study’s principal investigator and Susan Malusa, the study’s project manager told Tucson online that the habitat in the Santa Rita’s should be protected but they could not fully comment on the proposed mine as it wasn’t part of their study. Malusa said it would change things but they weren’t able to predict how.

David Chambers, an environmental consultant, told The Star that there was no definite answer as to whether the mine was “good or bad and, that it comes down to determining if the economic benefits outweigh the environmental and social costs.” Jessica Moreno of Sky Island Alliance said that not everyone cares about a jaguar named El Jefe. The critical issue of the water permits may be the best way stop the mine.

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El Jefe in 2014 – Image USFWS – As of early 2017 it has been about a year since El Jefe has been seen leading to speculations that something has happened to him or he has returned to Mexico.

Here are a few things to think about. Copper is in everyday items that we use from cars to cellphones, what are we wiling to give up or eliminate from our lives in order to protect our environment and wildlife? Do we invest more heavily in the technology to recycle and reuse existing copper or are we forever stuck having to mine for it and risk diminishing precious Eco-systems for materials like copper? As the human population grows demand for copper and other materials will increase and if it must be mined, who determines where the copper comes from? Kathy Arnold, Rosemont’s director of environment said in the article from The Star that if the demand for copper continues to grow it will have to come from somewhere and with about “30 percent of what we need being imported another country pays the environmental price for our consumption”. She goes on to say that it’s better to have someone like her watching out for the environment than in places where there are less or no proper controls.

What can be expected with a mile-wide, half-mile deep open-pit mine that is set to border the Santa Rita Mountains in the Coronado National Forest? It would bury 3,000 acres of surrounding public land generating more than a billion tons (1.25 billion tons) of toxic mine waste that will be dumped into 700-foot high “earthforms” and, it is expected to require “6,000 acre-feet of water per year”. It is clear that the mine will disturb, stress, disrupt and possibly become an additional form of mortality for wildlife in addition to the impact it would have on the environment, water supply and local people.

According to Rosemont Mine Truth, who continues to monitor this highly controversial project, there is a “possibility that HudBay could mine up to an additional 591 million tons of copper-bearing rock after mining in the pit is completed” further impacting the landscape, threatened and endangered species, water resources and ecotourism.  As it stands now a Clean Water Act permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, final approval from the Coronado National Forest are required before construction could begin. A final decision is expected soon.

For updates and details on the mine’s progress, please head over to Rosemont Mine Truth on Facebook.

The Cost of Doing Business continues looking at few other projects elsewhere that are, or have the potential to impact the big cats and wildlife.

Leopards in High Places

Many of the big cats are known for climbing trees to escape the heat, flies, to watch for prey or to escape other predators. It is not uncommon to see them taking to heights and, in Africa leopards are commonly seen hanging out in tall trees. Although lions have been known to do the same in certain places they are not exactly designed for tree climbing and come across a little more awkward compared to the fluid and graceful leopard who is naturally at home in the heights where they will stash kills, eat and happily sleep.

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Salt Pan female hangs out and catches a breeze in a large tree – South Luangwa NP. Zambia

During my trip to Africa last year I was fortunate to have many wonderful leopard sightings both on the ground and up high, in fact over a few days all I had to do was look up to see these dappled beauties looking down at me. Of course, that’s when they weren’t busy enjoying a siesta or post-meal nap.

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Kataba the one-eyed legend – Puku Ridge South Luangwa NP, Zambia

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Kataba sleeping with a full belly – Puku Ridge South Luangwa NP, Zambia

While leopards are able to climb some very tall trees you might be surprised to know that at least one had made it all the way to the top of Africa’s highest mountain to take in a view that perhaps no other has. In 1926 on Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, a frozen leopard carcass was found along the volcanoes crater rim by Pastor Richard Reusch, a Missionary for the Lutheran Church. The Pastor was supposedly the first to discover the leopard which would later inspire, and be immortalized in, Hemingway’s book The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The Pastor made sure to get proof of his find and cut off an ear as souvenir on a subsequent climb the following year, afterwards the leopards remains were reported to have mysteriously disappeared. No reason was given as to why the leopard would have been that high, approximately 18,500 feet (or 5638.8 meters), close to the western summit at a place that would be christened Leopard point, but Pastor Reusch had hypothesized that the cat had been chasing a goat since he also found the remains of one not far from where the leopard lay. Since there were no remains and no radiocarbon dating, the leopards age along with length of time it remained locked in the once famous snows of Kilimanjaro will also remain a mystery.

Interestingly, there is a reference that notes the first report of a leopard carcass on Kilimanjaro was in 1889 by a German Geologist and Geographer named Hans Meyer who had seen one not far from where Reusch would later spot his. Among some of the theories included the possibility that the leopard could have come from the Kilimanjaro Mountain  Forest Reserve and took a wrong turn, or that the leopard was pursued up to high elevations by local hunters as Meyer had seen a hunting camp nearby. Officially though, nothing has ever been confirmed and to this day there has been no explanation for either Meyer’s or Reusch’s leopard.

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Kilimanjaro stands 5,895 meters high, the leopard was found at about 5638.8 meters – Image – John Reader/Science Photo Library via Earth Touch News

It does seems that leopards had an affinity for the mountains and in 1997 another leopard carcass was discovered on Africa’s second highest mountain, near Tyndall Glacier, Mount Kenya. In this case there were remains, although very decomposed, which turned out to be enough for radiocarbon dating placing the animal at about 900 years old.

There are opportunities to see wildlife during the early stages of a Kilimanjaro climb at lower elevations, but those still hoping to spot a leopard on higher slopes shouldn’t hold their breath. The high altitudes that are reached during climbs are not ones that most wild animals can survive at and if there are any, most will do their best to steer clear of humans.

If you are set on a chance to glimpse a leopard in high places it is probably best to keep your eyes on the trees and maybe, you will be lucky enough to have one of these beautiful cats reveal themselves and all their spotted splendor.

The Jaguar and the Giant Anteater

The jaguar is the largest and most powerful feline in the Western Hemisphere. They have solid, compact muscular bodies with the males weighing in at 150 to 200 plus lbs reaching lengths of seven feet – without the tail. They have extremely powerful jaws and massive heads making them a top-level predator and carnivore that keeps prey animals in check thus helping to prevent overgrazing of habitat. They are often confused with leopards but their coat pattern is very distinct made up of a yellow or orange-colored coat with markings called rosettes.

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Jaguar coat                                                                                        Leopard coat

Jaguars once roamed from Argentina in South America all the way up to Texas, Arizona and California but were systematically wiped out throughout most of their natural range in the U.S. in the early 1900’s. With the exception of the few who make it across the border into Arizona, like the famous El Jefe who appeared on camera traps in the Santa Rita Mountains in Tucson, they are considered expatriated in the U.S. Jaguars are not fairing much better south of the U.S. border, Sonora in Mexico is thought to hold a breeding population currently, where they suffer from habitat loss and fragmentation, persecution from ranchers, poaching and hunting. Their numbers are estimated to be at 15,000 but it is unclear how many are left as they are highly secretive and elusive, perfectly camouflaged for the forested and woody areas in which they mostly reside.

Jaguars are loners, coming together only to mate, hunting and preferring to feed alone. They can take prey the size of small birds and frogs up to deer, alligators and domestic livestock. They are a formidable predator which knows no real threat from its prey while hunting except perhaps from the giant anteater. If you are wondering what would happen should a jaguar and giant anteater meet wonder no more. Footage taken via camera trap in the Brazil’s Gurupi Biological Reserve, as a part of a survey on jaguars, has revealed an encounter only talked about in stories, one that had never before been witnessed by humans. A giant anteater can weigh anywhere from 40 to 140 lbs, with an adult being about the size of a small female jaguar, and is a worthy and even deadly opponent when you consider their claws, which are twice as long as the infamous velociraptor. Anteaters are not aggressive to humans or other animals, but they will defend themselves if startled or feeling threatened, in fact they are responsible for the deaths two hunters in Brazil.

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Image – Giant anteater claws, which are very elongated in the second and third digits. Photo by Vidal Haddad, Jr. via ResearchGate

Researcher Elildo Carvalho Jr., of the Brazilian National Research Centre for Carnivore Conservation (CENAP) was the first to discover the never before seen footage while reviewing thousands of camera trap videos. Unfortunately the outcome is unknown as the camera was retrieved a month after the encounter and the video reviewed much later on.

 

In the southern Pantanal in Brazil anteaters make a small portion of a jaguars prey about  3 percent, but in the Cerrado, in central Brazil anteaters make up about 75 percent of the cats diet. Encounters can be very dangerous and Carvalho says it’s safe to assume that a jaguar would only attack by surprise or from behind and, that what happened in this video is the result of a surprise run in between the two species. He thinks that the two likely took a look at one another and then decided it wasn’t worth it and moved on, but there is no way to know for sure.

Despite there not being any evidence regarding the outcome of this particular video there is one photo, taken in the Cerrado, showing a jaguar carrying a large full-grown anteater.

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Image – Jaguar caught on camera trap with adult giant anteater in the Cerrado. Photograph: Edsel Moraes Jr. via The Guardian

Camera traps are allowing researchers a rare glimpses into the world of the secretive jaguar and how it shares, and is interconnected, to other species like the giant anteater. Jaguars although facing decline from dramatic habitat destruction and fragmentation, in the Amazon, the Cerrado and the Pantanal due to deforestation from cattle ranches and agriculture, are only considered Near Threatened. With loss of habitat comes loss of the jaguars natural prey which in turn can bring them into conflict with cattle leading to retaliatory killings from ranchers. Although commercial hunting and trapping has been reduced over the years, thanks to CITES controls and an Appendix 1 listing, they are still poached for their skins and teeth.

The wow moment like the one caught of the jaguar and giant anteater is thanks to the use of camera traps which are important tools in helping researchers understand jaguars in ways which they could never imagine. It doesn’t hurt that the general public benefits by getting a glimpse into an encounter that we would never otherwise have the opportunity to see.

A collection of camera trap videos from the CENAP survey in Gurupi Biological Reserve shows many other species, including rare species like bushdogs, pumas  and giant armadillos.

The Lions of London

The Tower of London is known for its rich and rather dark history having been a royal palace, prison, fortress, place for executions and at one time a zoo housing a menagerie of animals including leopards, a polar bear, elephant, monkeys, zebra, ostrich and lions, most of which were given as ‘gifts’ from foreign countries to the monarchy. In 1937 two very well-preserved lion skulls were excavated from the Towers moat and later confirmed, through genetic testing, to be the now extinct pure Barbary lions. Interestingly the skulls were carbon dated back to between “1420 and 1480 for one, and between 1280 and 1385 for the other, making it the oldest lion found in the UK since the extinction of wild cave lions during the last ice age.” Lions being symbols of nobility and strength of the monarchy did not prevent them from mistreatment, and the skulls revealed evidence that they suffered from nutritional and physical stress which would have been in addition to the stress caused from their initial capture, transport to the zoo and a life in captivity.

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The Royal Menagerie zoo lasted more than 600 years: An illustratation of how the zoo within the Tower looked in 1816Daily Mail online

Visitors were allowed to view the animals and apparently during the 18th century the price of admission was “three half-pence, or the supply of a cat or dog to be fed to the lions.”  The collection of animals continued to grow and expand in species until it was realized that the Tower was no place to keep them. Suffice it to say the attitude towards captive animals, and animals in general was not very good, but as people’s views of animals in captivity started to change most of them, except for those in the private collection of Keeper Alfred Cops which were later re-homed in 1835 after a series of accidents, were sent to the Zoological Society of London in Regent Park in 1831 and early 1832 to establish the London Zoo. The Tower’s zoo was officially closed in 1835.

By current standards the conditions these animals were kept in must have been appalling or close to what we see in some of the modern worlds worst zoos. Thankfully the only remaining animals on the Tower grounds today are those made of galvanized wire.

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Tower of London: The 3 Lions  sculpture is located on the site of the original Lion Tower

To celebrate the history of the Royal Menagerie, contemporary animal sculptor, and a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (UK) and a signature member of the Society of Animal Artists (USA), Kendra Haste was commissioned to create life-size replicas of the wild creatures that were once held at the Tower.

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“Royal Beasts” exhibit include lions, baboons, a polar bear and elephant – Image – Kendra Haste

These amazing and incredible life-like sculptures were created by using layers of galvanized wire, twisted and even painted to produce the results which give a sense of “a living, breathing subject in a static 3-D form.” The result can be seen in these photos, in person one can easily imagine them coming to life a haunting tribute to those creatures, victims of wildlife trafficking, who were imprisoned and perished at the Tower.

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Image – Kendra Haste

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Image – Kendra Haste

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Image – Kendra Haste

Currently on display until 2021, this incredible exhibit is a must see if you live, or will be in London, so be sure to check it out if you have the chance.