Reviews |  Want to save the planet?  Focus on feral cats.

Reviews | Want to save the planet? Focus on feral cats.


John Goodrich is the chief scientist of Panthera, the global wildcat conservation organization.

Global biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, with more than one million species threatened with extinction. This week, the governments of most nations around the world will meet at COP15 – the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal – to adopt a plan to reverse our biodiversity crisis. While the science around biodiversity and climate is difficult to grasp for both the public and policy makers, here is a simple starting point:

Feral cats play a vital role in almost every environment where they occur. For this reason, assisting in their recovery can also help achieve quantifiable progress on many of our planet’s pressing environmental goals. As one of the most monitored species on Earth, cats are clear and compelling indicators of biodiversity. They can be measured quickly and cost-effectively, and their numbers tell a story that, for better or worse, can provide a litmus test for nature and climate.

Focusing on feral cats is effective because of their huge ranges and high-value habitats, allowing us to protect biodiversity and climate under the umbrella of cat conservation. The 40 species of wild cats occupy 74% of Earth’s landmass and overlap 75% of its Key Biodiversity Areas, the most critical sites for nature on our planet. Cougars, which inhabit large swathes of North and South America, alone overlap more than 12,000 terrestrial vertebrates. Almost all of the world’s remaining wild lions live in African savannahs, which play a key role in carbon sequestration.

As a keystone species, big cats in particular play a vital role in their environment by supporting, and even increasing, biodiversity and overall health. Cougars are “ecosystem engineers”, whose interactions with hundreds of other species profoundly influence the structure and function of their habitats and the wildlife found there. For example, cougar kills feed on all manner of wildlife, from moose to birds to beetles, creating intricate webs that help hold ecosystems together.

Additionally, cats help preserve nature’s contributions to people, from food, water and livelihoods to carbon storage and buffers against disease. Studies of jaguar conservation strategies show that jaguars could play a protective role for other species and their high-quality habitat throughout their range. This has massive implications for people. The jaguar’s range, which overlaps most of the tropical forests of the Americas, provides 17% of the world’s carbon storage and sequestration, directly benefiting 53 million people in Latin America. Although more research is needed, it is safe to say that we all benefit from intact jaguar habitat, as their forest homes are so essential to mitigating climate change.

Despite the clear role of species in biodiversity and climate protection, species conservation is often seen as a limited means of preserving nature. Decades ago, saving entire ecosystems became the rallying cry of transformative environmental policy, shifting institutional investments and government priorities.

There has never been a better time for governments and financial institutions to reconsider this false dichotomy. COP15 delegates are about to begin the final stage of negotiations on a new global biodiversity agreement. Raising the ambition needed to achieve its targets will only be possible by recognizing that species and ecosystem approaches are compatible; indeed, protecting cats requires protecting entire ecosystems. Yet if we neglect species-specific conservation, ecosystems become vulnerable to the “empty forest syndrome” that has plagued many of our tropical landscapes, where overhunting and poaching have decimated wildlife. In today’s world, landscape-level conservation alone is not enough to halt extinctions.

Tigers are a compelling example. After decades of intensive range-wide recovery efforts, tiger numbers are rebounding. These programs have increased biodiversity, carbon storage, water availability and livelihoods. Areas with tigers are better protected from poaching and illegal activities that lead to habitat degradation. A single tigress in India has been credited with generating over $100 million in tourism revenue. Without these species-specific investments, it is unlikely that the broader benefits would have been realized.

Having failed to fully implement any of the 2020 targets adopted in the last global biodiversity accord of 2010, governments are figuring out what it will take to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 and how to measure the progress. Feral cats can help. We know how to protect, recover and monitor them, and we also know that this will help governments meet their biodiversity, climate and health commitments. But despite our better understanding of the connections between these environmental crises, we are slow to create vital links between them to effect transformative change.

This is where the power of cats as a flagship species comes in. Cats are charismatic animals with limitless appeal and cultural significance to billions of people around the world. Their sheer geographic overlap with humans and their reliance on the same air, water, and cover means that their survival and ours are inextricably linked.

As the world comes together to solve the biodiversity crisis, let’s not forget the power of species to bring us together. Focusing on the recovery of our wild cats can help rally the ambition needed to halt extinctions, restore biodiversity and reshape our relationship with nature.

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