Big Cat Species Facing Extinction

Big Cat Species Facing Extinction

2010 is supposed to be the Year of the Tiger. Unfortunately, tigers, lynx, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, cheetahs, and every species of Big Cat in the world is in serious decline. How long these magnificent species can evade extinction is up to us.

Big Cats are part of the Family Felidae (or feline), and are a rich addition to our natural world. However, the Big Cats are in severe decline throughout the planet. The Anthropocene Extinction, also known as the Holocene Extinction event, is the world’s 6th great sudden loss of life. We are currently in the third wave of this, and man-made ecological effects such as an overexploitation of species, pollution, the introduction of alien species, and habitat encroachment are directly responsible for the decline and extinction of thousands of species of life. Big Cats are one of the most impacted by this population explosion of the genus Homo.


The World Wildlife Fund reports: “For over a million years, the “King of the Jungle” lorded over a territory stretching from eastern Turkey to the Russian Far East, with its home extending northward to Siberia and southward into Bali. But by the end of the last century, the Bali, Javan and Caspian tigers were extinct.”

There are six remaining subspecies, including the Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, Malayan, South China, and Sumatran. Overall, tiger populations have fallen 95 percent over the last hundred years, with their habitat shrinking 40 percent over the last 10 years alone. Most estimates only put the number of remaining wild tigers at 2,000.

Iberian Lynx

This is the most threatened species of cat in the world today. There are fewer than 100 of them left alive in Spain and Portugal, down from 400 a decade ago and 4,000 fifty years ago. The Iberian Lynx is listed as critically endangered, with extinction appearing nearly imminent. Provided something drastic is not done to save the Iberian Lynx, it will be the first species of big cat to go extinct since the Smilodon (Sabre-Toothed Tiger) 10,000 years ago after the introduction of Homo sapiens to the Americas.


Although Jaguars are only considered to be nearly threatened, they are not as abundant as their smaller cousin, the Ocelot. Further, their range has diminished significantly and our species is expanding rapidly into their territories.


Like all of the Big Cats, Leopards have many varieties. Snow Leopards are endangered, with as few as 3,000 remaining in the wild. The East Asian Snow Leopard is in even more jeopardy, with only 30 remaining in nature. Clouded Leopards are vulnerable, although not as in danger as their snowy cousins. Irimote (from the Japanese Island of the same name) are critically threatened, and have the notoriety of being a living fossil, or life form that is virtually identical to ancient progenitors.


Although not considered an endangered species, this is perhaps the case that illustrates the decline of the big cats throughout the world as humans move in. Lions, the only social cat, once had a range that spanned from Portugal to India and all throughout Africa. Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France has cave paintings of lions (as well as leopards, rhinos, hyenas, etc.) dating back to at least the Gravettian period (c. 28,000–23,000 BP). Lions are also depicted on ceramic vessels throughout the ancient world, and were the inspiration behind the Great Sphinx in Egypt.

Despite an enclave of 300 clinging to a small patch in India, they have vanished from Asia. There are approximately 30,000 remaining in isolated patches in Africa, with only a few living outside of designated national parks or hunting areas.


Also known as the cougar and mountain lion, the puma is not considered to be endangered, despite nearly being wiped out a century ago. The Puma seems to have relatively viable populations stretching from the Yukon to Chile. Despite this, there have been a number of individuals found attempting to recolonize the upper Midwest region. The future of this species is in the balance however, as human encroachment, putting pressure on their connection corridors and putting them at risk of habitat fragmentation.

In North America, the only remaining species east of the Mississippi River is the Florida Panther living in the Everglades. In 2003, there were only 87 left alive with recent reports being as low as 20, and due to severe genetic constriction, the closely related Texas panther was introduced in an attempt to reinvigorate this enclave. Nevertheless, it is expected that this subspecies will vanish within 20 years.


The Cheetah is the fastest land animal, capable of accelerating to over 100 kph (63 mph) in less than 3 seconds and reach speeds of 120 kph (75 mph) for short bursts. Unlike other species of Big Cats, they are not good climbers. Unlike the Puma, Cheetahs are specialists and more vulnerable to changes. As such, they have almost been eradicated from Asia, with a small pocket of 50 holding on in Iran. Their African range has shrank much like the lion, and there are approximately 10,000 remaining.

Cheetahs are going through a genetic bottleneck, where loss of habitat and mating practices have led to rampant interbreeding. The result has been an increased frequency of anomalies such as cramped teeth, curled tails, and bent limbs, and some wildlife biologists now believe that they are too inbred to flourish as a species, according to Wikipedia.


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