Large Carnivores Everywhere Going The Way Of The Buffalo, And Our Ecosystems Will Suffer

By Ajit Jha on January 9, 2014 2:14 PM EST

Gray wolf
The gray wolf is one of the world's remaining large carnivores, but its numbers are dwindling. (Photo: Shutterstock)

There is unmistakable evidence that over 75 percent of the 31 known large carnivore species are in decline, and 17 species are compelled to live in a shrunken habitat less than half of their former ranges, according to a recent study published in the journal Science.

The phenomenal loss of the large predators is near universal across landscapes from the tropics to the Arctic. Some of the areas where large carnivores are most rapidly declining include Southeast Asia, southern and East Africa and the Amazon. In the highly developed areas of Western Europe and in the eastern United States these animals have already been more or less entirely wiped out.

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With the help of published scientific reports, the researchers identified seven species — African lions, leopards, Eurasian lynx, cougars, gray wolves, sea otters, and dingoes — known to have suffered widespread ecological effects.

Looking at cougars and wolves, Willima Ripple, lead author of the paper and a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University, along with coauthor Robert Beschta, fingered the disruption of ecological balance leading to increase in browsing animals like deer and elk, and subsequent loss in vegetation, migration among birds, and small mammals as the primary reasons for the shrinking populations. Other studies have identified similar impacts in studies of Eurasian lynx, dingoes, lions and sea otters, according to the authors.

There are multiple examples of how loss of predators can dramatically change an ecosystem. As the lynx population declines, roe deer, red fox and hare grow in numbers. In Africa, the decrease of lions and leopards has led to a dramatic increase in olive baboons, threatening human crops and livestock in consequence. Off Alaskan waters, the ongoing loss of kelp beds and the rise in sea urchin population is predicated upon a decline in sea otters.     

The classical view of ecosystems is that predators are harmful as they cause depletion of fish and wild life. But the authors argue that this model needs to be revised in light of a growing body of evidence showing that carnivores play an important role in ecosystems. There are many studies, according to authors, that document several benefits from large predators including carbon sequestration, riparian restoration, and biodiversity and disease control. Beneficial impacts on ecosystem have been noticed in places where large carnivores have been restored, such as the wolves in Yellowstone and Eurasian lynx in Finland.

"I am impressed with how resilient the Yellowstone ecosystem is," Ripple said in a press release. "It isn't happening quickly everywhere, but in some places, ecosystem restoration has started there." Sadly, in places where loss of vegetation has severely damaged the soil, it may not be possible to achieve complete restoration in the short term, according to Ripple.

The authors also make a kind of moral or philosophical claim: that predators have an intrinsic right to exist. Alarmed by what they found, Ripple and his team, have recommended an international initiative to conserve large predators in coexistence with people, modeled on the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe

Image above courtesy of Shutterstock.

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