Cats of The Canopy

Cloaked in cloud like patterns they traverse the forest canopy like no other cat, their beautiful coats helping to keep them perfectly camouflaged whether hanging by their back feet from the trees, or padding silently across the rainforest floor. Rarely seen in the wild the clouded leopard is both acrobat and mystery.

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Image of clouded leopards at the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand – Pintrest

Despite the fact that so little is known about clouded leopards they have often been neglected when it comes to conservation efforts, but thanks to organizations like S.P.E.C.I.E.S this graceful and threatened cat is being given the attention and support it so desperately needs.

I recently spoke with founder and director of  S.P.E.C.I.E.S Anthony Giordano, who I met at the Jackson Hole Conservation Summit, to discuss his organization and work with clouded leopards and why we must start to focus on their conservation now. We also talk about captivity, palm oil, poaching and, how people at home can help support their work to ensure that the smallest of the big cats is around for generations to come.

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The Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study

Tell me a little about your organization’s name and how you came up with it

I was trying to come up with a brand and organization, and I think my mind was subconsciously working on different names, ideas, acronyms and what they might entail. I remember waking up one morning feeling very clear-headed that the name species was something. I was able to find meaning in that acronym that encapsulated what I wanted to do and what I thought there was a niche for. S.P.E.C.I.E.S made a lot of sense and it is something that people will remember, but it’s also who we are and what we do.

Our domain name carnivores.org was chosen because I wanted us to be found by people who didn’t know they were looking for us. I also thought it would be a better way to be found as it describes who we are in one word. Now S.P.E.C.I.E.S as brand is synonymous with carnivores.org.

Why did you choose the clouded leopard for your logo?

It’s not a coincidence that I chose the clouded leopard as they symbolically represented all of these unanswered questions that I had about carnivore ecology and evolution. I had a particular fascination for a clouded leopard painting when I was younger which served as an inspiration for the logo and I like that the clouded leopard in our logo is perched up high looking down surveying the terrain, which is also symbolic of who we are as an organization and where we need to be in order to accomplish our goals and objectives.

Additionally, I saw S.P.E.C.I.E.S as being a leader in trying to answer important questions about the clouded leopard and leading in their conservation because there weren’t a lot of organizations doing that. As the smallest of the big cats they are not often the priority and they kind of fall in between the gaps when organizations are deciding what species to focus on. This has done us a disservice with respect to knowing what this cat is, where it comes from and what its needs are in the modern world and larger conservation context.

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“I thought they were the feline equivalent of a question mark… I was always drawn to them because everything about them was mysterious.” – Anthony Giordano

You work with a variety of different carnivores and wild cats. Why was the clouded leopard the focus of your presentation at the conservation summit?

I was invited specifically to Jackson Hole to talk about clouded leopards and, it had a lot to do with prior conversations I had with the organizers of the cat summit which happened to be when we launched Project Neofelis (Neofils is the genus name for clouded leopards) which was around International Biodiversity Day in May of 2017. It was a very ambitious effort for us to try to establish a project, whether it was a survey to answer basic questions, a community conservation project or maybe a combination of these elements, that focused on clouded leopards as there is such an absence of information on them. In addition, we want to also try to establish one of these projects in every range country where clouded leopards occur.

How many different species of clouded leopards are there?

There are currently two distinguished species of clouded leopards and this distinction was made in 2006. We have the Asian mainland or Indochinese clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and then we have the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) which is found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

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The name Sunda comes from Sundaland which is a term used to describe a biogeographical region of Southeastern Asia that was once an ancient land mass connecting Sumatra and Borneo as one. The Sunda clouded leopard is now restricted to these islands and is actually classified as two different subspecies the Bornean and the Sumatran clouded leopard.

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Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) – This more widely distributed clouded leopard species can be recognized by its lighter, tawny fur and larger cloud-like markings. The most remarkable feature of clouded leopards is that, in proportion to their body size, they possess the largest canines of all the cats – Arkive

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Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) – Can be recognized by its darker, grey or greyish-yellow fur and smaller cloud-like markings. On average they have even larger and more knife-like canines than Neofelis nebulosa – Arkive

Clouded leopards are well-known for being at home in the forest canopy, is there any research to show much time they actually spend there?

Clouded leopards are frequently recorded on the ground, but there is no other big cat that is as well equipped for dealing with life in the trees or as agile as the clouded leopard for moving in the trees. We know they rest and sleep there and we have reports of them hunting primates in the trees or taking species they have killed into the trees. We know all their adaptations are for a superior life there, but the real question is how much time at night do they spend in the trees because that’s when they’re active. If they are spending a lot time during the day time sleeping in the trees that doesn’t tell us much because we know other cats do that.

We are working with collaborators to try to put collars on clouded leopards soon so we can look at the impacts that things like palm oil have on them, their activity and territory use. This research will also help to answer basic questions like how much time they actually spend and hunt in the trees. These are some of the questions we hope to answer in the years to come.

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Why is your work with the clouded leopard so important?

I think it’s because they have been left by the wayside and also from an evolutionary perspective and context they are of one of the most distinctive of the cats. What I mean by this is when you trace back the ancestry of some the modern big cats we see a clear relationship among all the other modern big cats in the Subfamily Pantherinae, of which clouded leopards are part of.

All of the other  big cats – tigers, leopards, lions, jaguars and snow leopards come together under one genus Panthera, whereas the clouded leopard is in the genus Neofelis which likely means the ancestors of the clouded leopard probably broke away a little earlier from the Pantherinae lineage.

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Two cladograms proposed for the genus Panthera – By Sainsf (Own work), Wikimedia Commons

In many respects you have clouded leopard being the most distinctive of the cats and certainly the most distinctive of the big cats. There is an additional value that I assign to that because they are part of a larger evolutionary legacy that’s been lost and now there are only two species remaining. I think they are really interesting and that alone deserves the increased focus and conservation attention that we are trying to give them.

Part of that uniqueness is their possible relation to the saber-tooth cat

When people hear saber-tooth cat they think it’s one family of cats, but in reality the saber-tooth cat evolved five different times over the last 20 million years and they are not necessarily related to one another. One of the interesting things is there were selection pressures for this saber-tooth adaptation, like Darwinian selection natural, so something about this particular adaptation was selected for again and again and again. Some saber-tooth cats went extinct while others re-evolved, some ancestors went extinct where some descendants survived. So this happened several different times and right around the time clouded leopard broke away from the remaining extant living big cats.

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We have a skull of another cat, which is also very similar in terms of its skull morphology and teeth, that suggests that it was on its way to becoming a saber-tooth and it was fairly arboreal like clouded leopards are today. So one wonders if there is a connection there, but I think we are a long way away from knowing what the ultimate connection is between these extinct species and the clouded leopard.

S.P.E.C.I.E.S recently formed a partnership with the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and I am really excited about finding ways to look at these lessons from the past to see how we can apply them to modern conservation biology whether it’s extinction, climate change or the die off of mega fauna.

Why does the general public need to know more about the clouded leopard?

It is because of what we do know and, what we don’t know about the conservation threats. We do know that the largest threats to clouded leopards and in particular to the Sunda clouded leopard is oil palm and oil palm displacement of natural habitat. Clouded leopards are most associated with tropical rainforest more than any other cat and, these are the habitats that are being lost at the expense of expanding oil palm plantations in places like Indonesian, Malaysia, and Thailand which is also investing in oil palm. This is an insidious ingredient that makes its way into some of our favorite foods, if you like chocolate, or cookies or even the healthy substitute for butter there is likely palm oil in there.

“The worst part about it is that palm oil is not necessarily bad for you, its bad for the planet.”

The problem is that we are turning large parts of the tropics into these mono cultures of African oil palm and its making its way into our food ingredients, into our cosmetics, soap and shampoo. What more people need to do is read the label and if you see something that says palm kernel oil or something similar I advocated maybe not buying it.

What are you thoughts on sustainable palm oil and wildlife?

So the idea behind sustainable palm oil is really no more net loss of rain forest –  I think that should be the first step regardless. If the idea is to grow in areas where there were other plantations or other sources of agriculture or degraded areas and invest in palm oil there for a while, that could possibly buy us some time. However the problem is then differentiating between ethical and non-ethical and we would need to have a really transparent certification process that could be validated. My other issue is that we have lost so much rainforest already no-one is talking about restoration and connectivity.

If you look at Sumatra on a map it’s completely devastated in terms of the forest, if we are going to talk about sustainable oil palm we must absolutely talk about restoring forests. My problem is the idea of sustainable oil palm just leads to this never-ending circle where we never talk about forest restoration or forest connectivity because already today we are already dealing with a fraction of the habitat for species like the clouded leopard than we were dealing with 30 years ago. I see a hornets nest of ways it can get out of control.

What happens when all of that available land goes because we are not talking about all the larger issues like continued growth. An expanding population also means increasing consumption which is going to take place as many of these countries continue to improve their economy and improve standard of living for their people and, this is perfectly legitimate. I think there is are ways to move forward that doesn’t lead to the obliteration  of rainforest, but we need to start taking about limits, caps and strategies for re-connecting wild places and restoring rainforests. That’s something that we are not doing much of on a governmental or international level, we are not talking about global incentives at that global scale and we need to start doing more of that I think.

Is palm oil the biggest threat?

When you look at all clouded leopards together we could easy argue that palm oil is the most expansive threat. When you look at the Indochinese clouded leopard you have palm oil playing a role in term of habit loss in places like Thailand, but it’s not as much as dominant threat. Keep in mind that in places like this deforestation has already occurred, there is nothing left in a lot of these places. So in some countries continued deforestation is not necessarily the greatest threat to the Indochinese clouded leopard, I would argue that poaching might be.

We know poaching is happening for clouded leopards and they are being targeted across their entire range, but we just don’t know the levels as poaching seems to fly under the radar. One of the reasons could be that the skins of the clouded leopard might not fetch the high prices that say a tiger skin or snow leopard skins could fetch on the international market.

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It is possible that clouded leopard skins aren’t showing as much up in these international busts because maybe they are bought more locally and maybe because they can be afforded more by local people.” – Anthony Giordano

Many people have remarked to me how openly displayed clouded leopard skins sometimes are in local markets, the same markets that wouldn’t dare to openly display a tiger skin or snow leopard skin. So it makes me wonder what the level of poaching on clouded leopards is like as we know there is an international trade in them. On top of that there is also a lot of local trade which largely goes unreported because people would pay a fraction for a clouded leopard skin versus a tiger skin. It may be that the local middle class can afford to have a skin like clouded leopard hanging it in their house, but we just don’t know and that is something that worries me.

Is it a matter of time before someone trains their sights on clouded leopards, like they have with Jaguars? Does it mean that people will try to get more clouded leopards, because they are smaller, to compensate for their size? Who knows how these market changes could affect pressure on clouded leopards.

One of the things we are hoping to do is to work more closely with organizations like the EIA and to get more involved in representing the plight of clouded leopards by placing a greater focus on them with organizations like CITES. We also hope to lead the way in helping implement other potential restrictions on the trade in endangered species and local laws as well.

Are there specific strategies that S.P.E.C.I.E.S would like to employ to help combat some of these threats?

This kind of effort requires participation of these larger groups like CITES and some of the other NGO’s, but one of the things that we want to do is to see if we can really identify more specifically what those pressures might be on local clouded leopard populations. For example, are clouded leopards sought after as final goal or objective of poaching, or are they poached more incidentally because they are caught in indiscriminate snares? How does that context change from one geographic location to the next?

One place where we might want to do more of that kind of research is in North-Eastern India where we know poaching is happening, but it might require building a network of people who can report these activities. Once we perfect that model there we could then expand it into other areas. While there is already a focus on tigers, snow leopards and common leopards there is still a shocking nonchalance regarding clouded leopards, so I am hoping that we can start changing that.

Involving people on a local level is vital for these type of initiatives, how do you see public outreach in local communities fitting in with your strategy?

In that context the goal would try to recruit their participation and buy in of community leadership to see if we can take that top down approach. The challenge right now is that everything is so anecdotal, there is so much that we don’t know, we need to do more background information to be able to say that in this one area it seems like clouded leopard skins are coming in every week because that would be a red flag and, it would be enough for us to say that this in an area we should try to invest in. Then, if we could solve this problem locally we could apply the elements that contribute to our success on the ground elsewhere.

So that is something we hope to do by working with the partner organizations that are keeping track of these skins and products to get a larger landscape perspective of where the hot spots of poaching and associated communities are. We are still in our infancy in knowing so much about the clouded leopard, like in Nepal where we just started working we are still determining where they occur. It is interesting and exciting but challenging and we may be in position, for example, to re-write the range map for clouded leopard if they occur in an area we think they are now and we are able to validate it. It would change the map for clouded leopard distribution.

We hope to begin these activities this year, but there are very fundamental natural history and ecological questions we must answer before we have a better idea of how to develop effective conservation strategies for them.

Some sources quote there are an estimated 10,000 clouded leopards left

I am so reluctant to use numbers, but the source is considered valid. I try to work with the conservation community to avoid putting a number because there is so much variation at this point. To be honest there could be forests out there that we think should have clouded leopards in them and don’t.

We know they occur at low densities similar to other big cats despite the fact that are much smaller than tigers or the common leopard. Something about that suggests that clouded leopards are still patrolling these fairly large areas whether in the trees or on the ground often in the shadow of  tigers and leopards. Only on Borneo are clouded leopards the top predator, the only thing they have to worry about there is maybe an angry sun bear. They have very legitimate concerns living in areas with common leopards which could take them by surprise, but we need to understand how these larger predators impact clouded leopards to. There are a lot more questions than answers at this point but it is also imperative that many be answered quickly in the near term so that we can devise the proper conservation strategies.

It might not be as simple as just protecting a particular forest especially if the ecological interactions occurring within that forest fragment are not suitable or ideal for clouded leopard. They might be better for leopards or tigers, whereas in certain areas where we know tigers or leopards are gone clouded leopards might do better there because of that. We really need to understand all of this across a larger landscape because as we protect clouded leopard we also protect tigers, leopards and complete ecosystems.

What are your thoughts on the role of clouded leopards in captivity and, do you think zoos contribute to their conservation?

Zoos have the ability to call attention to the uniqueness of species and to allow people the chance to watch them for long periods, to see how they move, that’s something I have done that and I think that was invaluable to me. I certainly recall the first time I saw a clouded leopard in captivity and how that inspired me and, there are still a lot people out there who still don’t know what a clouded leopard is, or they think they are a type of leopard.

It is amazing how much research on captive species has a direct baring on what we learn about how to protect that species in the wild. The cheetah is prime example of what was learned as a result of direct one to one correspondence with those who were doing research in the captive world and those who were observing them in the wild when for decades there was frustrations on how to breed them in captivity. There was a similar situation with breeding clouded leopards in captivity when they had problems, which were resolved, with females being killed by over aggressive males. I am not arguing for conservation entirely in captivity, I do however think there is a role for captivity and managed collections in conservation.

“Were not managing them now for re-introduction we are managing them now mostly for genetic diversity – the jury is still out how we would reintroduce clouded leopards in certain areas.”

We still have to ask where will they come from. Will we remove them from existing populations and do we have the right to do that? Or are we going to use captive animals that are genetically similar in those cases? No one has completely answered these questions but we are hoping to. A good example is Taiwan they are waiting and that’s something we are working on, they would like to see clouded leopards back there, but we have a long way to go.

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A clouded leopard cub feeding. Hand-raising is generally not used with zoo animals as it eliminates any possibility for release to the wild. But hand-raising of clouded leopards seems to reduce the animals’ stress levels, making them more at ease with captivity, and less likely to kill mates when bred.” – Photo by Bill Wood courtesy of the Clouded Leopard Consortium in Thailand Via – Mongabay

We are already dealing with a species so many people don’t know about and some people will only get exposure through zoos – how do you replace that? How do you get people to care about clouded leopards if they are never going to see one? I would argue that for the majority of people you are not. How do we replace that revenue that zoos provide? If we remove that now we would undoubtedly see the extinction of numerous species that are largely around today because of the investment of zoos. Zoos are starting to do their part in making habitats more amenable and safer to animals and also serve as that valuable bridge to be able to say to someone look at this animal – What is that? Until we find other ways to do that I think zoos will continue play valuable roles at least in terms of international conservation.

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I do think that its important that as we navigate the ethical challenges moving forward of how to interact with other species we not do so in a way that compromises science, which is one of our biggest and effective tools for preventing extinction. That’s a challenge we also need to address I think more in the media as well. ” – Anthony Giordano

I would be a hypocrite if I said they did not somehow fuel my path. Zoos have supported a number our projects, I want to be clear so people know that I am not afraid to say that. Zoos have been giving and supportive of our efforts, including young zoo keepers who contact me because they are interested in doing more to help protect these animals in the wild. They want to be engaged, and I know in part a lot of that passion is coming from that interaction.

Of course there are bad examples of zoos, I have seen some of these zoos in war zones in the Middle East – they are completely inhumane conditions and absolute tragedies. Those need to be shut down, but compared to some zoos in North America that invest heavily in their animals, I think those are different battles.

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Maybe 500 years from now we will be living in a different society and hopefully clouded leopards will still be there along with all these other species, but I think to get to that point and ensure that right now zoos are playing a key role.” – Anthony Giordano

I think we are all trying to identify the wild animals that we see as a reflection of our beloved cat or dog – we still need to make connections with individual animals and I still think we have a long way to go before we can embrace this larger ecological connection to things. As an ecologist it’s there – I see the clouded leopard, the forest behind them and to me those things are inextricable. We want them there, but I am the overwhelming minority in that respect.

What are some ways people can help clouded leopard conservation?

People can donate directly to Project Neofelis or to Cameras4Conservation which launched last year. The program is an effort to get remote sensing cameras in the hands of conservation professionals, young biologists and young educators in clouded leopard range countries. It helps to support initiatives and projects that are in line with our mission by also helping support education and maybe even policy development, if people are using cameras to determine if clouded leopards are present in a particular forest for the first time.

Participants submit competitive applications and we would make sure camera’s are spread out across different parts of the clouded leopard range. Last year we gave out camera’s to Sumatra, Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal  – a nice diversity of countries where the camera’s will make a difference. We intend to work with these partners to standardize the data so that it is managed properly, because in the long-term we would like to make the information freely available to scientists as well policy makers in some of these areas.

For more on S.P.E.C.I.E.S, or to make a donation to their work please visit carnivores.org and be sure to follow them on Facebook.

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Lions and Elephants

To mark World Lion Day I thought I would share a few more of my photos from my trip last year to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Lions are under threat and their numbers are declining rapidly – habitat loss, poaching, trophy hunting, human-wildlife conflict, the lion bone trade, cub petting, canned hunting, human population are all factors. Photo’s like these are a reminder of what a privilege and thrill it is to see them in the wild. Nothing beats shooting wildlife with a camera.

“If one should be a prey, how much the better
To fall before the lion than the wolf.” – Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

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Lions, World Lion Day, ethical tourism, travel, Africa, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, endangered species, wildlife photography

Lions, World Lion Day, ethical tourism, travel, Africa, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, endangered species, wildlife photography

Lions, World Lion Day, ethical tourism, travel, Africa, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, endangered species, wildlife photography

Lions, World Lion Day, ethical tourism, travel, Africa, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, endangered species, wildlife photography

Lions, World Lion Day, ethical tourism, travel, Africa, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, endangered species, wildlife photography

Lions, World Lion Day, ethical tourism, travel, Africa, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, endangered species, wildlife photography

The Lion and The Leopard

For those of you who follow Purr and Roar on Facebook you would have seen this post this morning. At first glance I thought it was fake, but turns out to be an unbelievable, legitimate, sighting. If there weren’t the photos to back it up no one would believe it. Article as published in BBC News. Enjoy!

A never before seen sighting of a lioness, called Nosikitok, a mother to her own three cubs born in June, spotted nursing a leopard cub thought to be about the same age as her own cubs.

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Lion expert Dr Luke Hunter told the BBC the images are a once-in-a-lifetime sight– Image © Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge

This is unheard of as lions and leopards are natural mortal enemies, most lions will kill leopard cubs if given the chance as a way of eliminating the competition. The lucky person who photographed the pair was Joop Van Der Linde, a guest at Ndutu Safari Lodge in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

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Lion expert Dr Luke Hunter told the BBC the images are a once-in-a-lifetime sight – Image © Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge

The lioness is fitted with a GPS collar and is part of the KopeLion project which aims to “to foster human-lion coexistence in Ngorongoro Conservation Area.” Unusual animal pairs are not uncommon but this is something that has baffled and surprised the experts.

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The lioness Nosikitok recently had her second litter of cubs
– Image © Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge

Dr Luke Hunter, President and Chief Conservation Officer for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization which supports Kope Lion, told the BBC the incident was “truly unique”. He also goes on to say that he is not aware of this type of relationship having ever occurred between different species of big cats.

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The local safari lodge says that there is a resident female leopard in the area who they think may have cubs. With luck, the tiny leopard will soon be back with its natural mother – Image © Joop Van Der Linde/Ndutu Lodge

Dr Hunter says that she found the leopard cub not far, about a kilometer, from where here own cubs are hidden. “She’s encountered this little cub, and she’s treated it as her own. She’s awash with maternal hormones, and this fierce, protective drive that all lionesses have – they’re formidable mums.”

They are anxiously awaiting the outcome and, fingers are crossed that this little leopard finds his or her way safely back to mum.

Cost of Doing Business: Rubies and Water

Around the world there are numerous projects that have already or will impact the environment and wildlife. While Arizona grapples with the possibility of a yet to be built copper mine, across the world in Mozambique a ruby mine operates near to one the largest wild areas in the province, the Niassa Reserve.

Gemfields mining company has become tied to conservation in the reserve even though  they are outside of the protected area. The company has become a sponsor of the Niassa Lion Project and Dr. Collen Begg Director and Founder of the project says it sets a bench mark that a company from within the country is supporting conservation efforts as it demonstrates an interest and concern for the wilderness area that neighbors their operation. While ruby mining in this circumstance appears to be less harmful to wildlife, it’s the illegal gold mining that is said to be the greatest threat to the Eco-system, by poisoning rivers with mercury and destroying wildlife conservation efforts. In a country like Mozambique the answers to solving these problems are not so clear especially when issues like poverty and high unemployment are taken into consideration. Can this type of positive association set an example of how wildlife conservation and big mining companies can co-exist and work together? Perhaps these rubies will one day carry a ‘wildlife friendly’ guarantee similar to that of true ethically sourced conflict free diamonds.

Large projects with the potential to have adverse and destructive consequences for wildlife can be connected to moving massive amounts of earth as in mining or by diverting large amounts or bodies of water. Man-made shipping canals appear to be in a class all their own as they forever alter the landscape and those living on it by flooding vast areas of land with water and impacting surrounding areas with corresponding infrastructure. The Nicaragua canal is one such recent controversial project that if built will be “three times as long and almost twice as deep” as the Panama canal and would require the removal of more than 4.5bn cubic meters of earth which is “enough to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building.”

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Nicaragua-canal a $50 billion dollar project – A shipping route to connect the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. It will be able to handle supertankers that are too big for the Panama canal transforming the area into a hub for global trade.  Image – The Guardian

By sheer size alone the impact and damage caused by this mega-project is perhaps greater than that of a mine as it would literally change the lives of people and wildlife across an entire continent. The canal would cut through forests and jungles threatening endangered species causing major disturbances to aquatic life which will be affected by dredging, noise and pollution of increased traffic on the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Victor Campos, director of the Humboldt Centre, a leading Nicaraguan environmental think tank, told The Guardian that “If the canal is built, then the Mesoamerican biological corridor is finished.”

A study by researchers at Panthera, Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) and Michigan State University, warns that by cutting through a critical ‘biological corridor’ it would be a disaster for jaguars and other large mammals. They said that in the middle part of the country it is vital to have another stepping stone for jaguars to travel from north to south.  It was determined that the entire northeastern section of Nicaragua, an area considered to be the country’s wildlife stronghold, would experience the largest impact from the canal. The study concluded that an artificial lake used to fill the canal would flood most of the remaining habitat for the three endangered species including the jaguar creating a huge barrier essentially cutting off mammal populations in southern Central America from those in the north preventing vital gene flow. Loss of connectivity for these species would ultimately be disastrous for their long term survival.

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A rushed Environmental and Social Impact Assessment was done but failed to include a comprehensive biodiversity study looking at threats to wildlife.

There have been suggestions for mitigating the impact of the canal to help animals including putting small islands between the canal’s artificial lake to allow them to move and, ensuring the remaining forests in the area are strongly protected. The canal is set to be one of the largest infrastructure projects on the planet and what is at stake is the Nicaraguan wildlife corridor and extinction of endangered species.

Could the canal actually help wildlife? There are some that seem to think that it may actually help slow down the already underway environmental degradation, such as deforestation and loss of wetlands, taking place in the country. If the canal is properly managed and money from the project is used to help pay for protecting nature reserves and re-forestation it would help to alleviate some environmental damage and ensure the corridor is not lost. However Roberto Salom, the Mesoamerican coordinator for Panthera’s jaguar program, said that they would need a lot more support to guarantee that, and there has been very little interest from the government or the canal company.

The Nicaraguan government is hoping they will be able to finally eradicate poverty, create jobs and a create a source of income for the country with the canal. As of May this year it has been reported that the green light has been given to begin construction, but nothing has been done due to financial issues leading to speculation that the canal may not be built at all.

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Jaguars and the wildlife corridors they use to move through Central America is threatened by the canal. Image – Wikimedia Commons

The benefit, quicker travel time, that canals provide to the shipping industry is not obvious to the general consumer, nor is the amount of goods that are transported and arrive via ships. Time is money and when shipping companies save money the savings get passed on to the consumer who ideally benefit by cheaper goods. Like mines, man-made canals are not likely going anywhere so perhaps there should be stricter protocols put into place so that wildlife like jaguars are ensured a future and companies are required to consider both wildlife and the environment in their development plans. The other option is that nothing is done and losing wildlife along with entire ecosystems like the one in Nicaragua, is considered the price paid for doing business as usual.

The final part of the Cost of Doing Business takes a look at the impact of a product that is literally in almost everything and, one we would have a hard time living without.

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.

Love Story

Wonderful short film from Jay Station on Youtube documenting the mating behavior of Florida Panthers. Always fascinating to watch big cat behavior!

Saving Africa’s Dappled Beauty

On my trip to Africa last year I had the amazing fortune and privilege to see a handful of leopards which are unbelievable in person with their relaxed, enigmatic, graceful beauty even in the extreme heat. I will be posting more photos of my trip at a later time but wanted to share this one of a lovely young female from Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. She had just had her Impala stolen by the famous resident one-eyed male known as Kataba – more on him later as well, who was sitting in a tree not more than five feet from her!

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Right now Panthera pardus needs your help, they have been over-hunted and persecuted to such an extent that South Africa has extended the ban on hunting them into 2017. This means there is a zero quota which has stayed in place since last January. While it doesn’t protect them from illegal hunting, retaliatory killings, poisoning, poaching etc…eliminating at least one form of mortality is a decent step. Leopard numbers are not known and to continue to allow these animals to be killed for sport is just not acceptable.

How you can help

Until midnight on January 30, 2017 the USFWS will be taking comments on leopards. We are asking to protect them from both hunting and the trade in their body parts. What the leopard needs is a reclassification to an Endangered status. If you could take a few minutes to visit the link and leave comments based on the following below.

Please try to modify with your own words but include some of the scientific facts and references as the USFWS will only consider comments if they include this important information. You may leave your comments with your name or as anonymous. Just click the blue ‘Comment Now’ button on the upper right corner! We urgently need more comments before the deadline – please share!

I strongly support the reclassification of the Leopard (Panthera Pardus) to Endangered Species. I support this for the following reasons:

  • First, scientific data shows that leopards are the most persecuted cat species in the world and that there is a major lack of data on the actual number of leopards remaining. Camera trapping surveys conducted during a study period indicate that leopard population in Southern Africa is declining rapidly and at a very concerning rate.
  • One of the major causes of leopard mortality, trophy hunting, can be stopped immediately. It is known that trophy “off take rates” are exceed and that corruption in the release of permits for trophy hunting occurs on a frequent basis making hunting these big cats for sport simply unsustainable.
  • Along with Trophy hunting there is illegal hunting, trapping and snaring, poisoning, killing for skin, legal destruction, farm livestock protection, revenge killings all pushing leopards to the brink of extinction. Leopards are also victims of Climate change and drought, which has an impact and threatens the leopard population worldwide.
  • Leopard habitat has greatly decreased which also threatens the leopard population worldwide; this creates conflict with growing agriculture, livestock farming and urbanization. Fences and fragmentation of the leopard habitat will in turn reduce the reproduction rate of the species.
  • Unreported and illegal killing of leopards is widespread across Southern African countries all of which have inadequate legislation and poor control to persecute illegal killings and manage the leopard population.
  • Another growing problem is the illegal trading of leopard parts – like with other big cats the trade is not adequately punishable or discouraged by the countries where the leopard is an indigenous species.
  • Finally enforcement is weak, incompetent, under-staffed and dysfunctional. Conservation departments are simply unable to monitor a particular elusive species such as leopard.
  • For these many legitimate reasons I am asking that Leopards be immediately reclassified as an Endangered Species and all hunting and trade of this highly imperiled species cease.

For your reference I am providing the following references:

  • Kahler & Gore, M.L. 2005, Local Perceptions, Human-Wildlife conflicts in Namibia
  • Minin-Fraser-Slotow-McMillan, Understanding the preference of tourists for big game species. Implication for Conservation, 2013
  • Nadal &Aguaio, A review of the Economic Analysis of wildlife trade, 2014
  • Richardson-Loomis, The total economic value of threatened, endangered and rare species, 2009
  • Ripple-Estes-Beschta, Status and ecological effects of the world’s largest carnivores, 2015
  • St John-Keane, Identifying indicators of carnivore killing, 2012
  • Swanepoel-Lindsey-Somers, Extent and fragmentation of suitable Leopard habitat in South Africa, 2013
  • Thorn-Green-Scott, Characteristics and determinants of human-carnivore conflict in South African farmland, 2013
  • Wilson-Spaeth, Governments are not doing enough to stop wildlife crime, 2017
    http://city-press.news24.com/…/governments-are-not-doing-en…
  • Cameron, Bustling trade in illegal wildlife products at Johannesburg market, 2016
    https://www.biznews.com/…/watch-bustling-trade-in-illegal-…/
  • THE COMPREHENSIVE STUDY PRESENTED TO THE FWS ON THE 25TH OF JULY 2016 BY HUMANE SOCIETY INTERNATIONAL –USA
    https://drive.google.com/…/0BxP8B7Q8gpNZeEZjTm5ia3FDZ2M/view
  • EMS Foundation Comments to the Department of Environment Affairs/Leopard Trophy Hunts
    https://www.dropbox.com/…/EMS%20Foundation%20Comments%20on%…