Among other factors increasing human population is the single largest threat to the wild cats, as it is to most other wild animals. It is what ultimately lies behind the pollution, deforestation, general disturbance of the environment that, if allowed to continue, will destroy most of the wild world. The problem is more acute in places where these cats have their strongholds. Not even the deepest jungles or the highest mountains are immune. Especially when humans have poisons, firearms and above all greed to earn money by trading in animal parts, the balance tilts heavily against the cats. We all know that wild cats with spots and stripes are being killed for fur trade and more importantly for Traditional Chinese medicines (TCM).
Whether or not representing divinity, the big cats have long been associated with power and vitality in the human mind. The leopard and lion show up frequently in the heraldry of medieval Europe. Tiger flesh and it’s body parts are still being used in Chinese medicines to improve health and sexual potency.
While impressed by the big cats, however, people have not shied from persecuting them. Literally since the dawn of history, man has waged war against the big cats, and the beasts have given ground – little by little at first, more recently with shocking suddenness.
Extensive and organized assaults on big jungle cats are a creation more of modern times, but their over-exploitation began long ago. Romans, who drained the big cats from much of the then-known world for shows in the arena, demanded a steady supply of tigers and lions for their bloody displays. According to Pliny hundreds of lions brought probably from northern Africa, used in single shows staged by Pompey and Caesar.
About the time Europeans began to “discover” rest of the world, the situation started to change. As the wilderness was breached by industrialization, machines and various jungle expeditions the havens of big cats gradually disappeared. Yet these animals remained abundant in much of the world. In early 20th century, there were some 40,000 tigers in India alone. Today just handful of them are left compared to the early 20th century figure.
Extinction looms close not only to several of the big cats, but almost all the jungle cats. None is so safe that its future is fully secured, although a few have made the best of a worsening situation. Many developing nations, to their great credit, have undertaken truly meaningful programs to protect their wildlife. These programs need support from the citizens of the world to become a reality.
The wild cats are animals to be admired and appreciated, not only for the important role they play as predators in keeping the ecology in balance, but for their own intrinsic qualities. These creatures, at once fierce and gentle, stark and soft, frightening and beautiful, embody nature in its many aspects. If the cats were to be vanish from the wild, perhaps the day-to-day lives of most people would not change significantly, but the world would be sadly impoverished by the loss.