Population declines in large carnivores such as lions, tigers and wolves may be caused more by rapid human economic development than by habitat loss or climate change, according to new research on Tuesday.
The researchers hope the findings could help improve policies to protect carnivore populations, which have been pushed to the brink of extinction in many parts of the world.
The study found that faster economic development was associated with faster carnivore population declines.
“Amid rapid development, people appear to be becoming less tolerant of carnivores, conflicts are exploding, and we suspect that the incidence of poaching and persecution is skyrocketing,” lead author Thomas Johnson said in a press release.
Some carnivores are hunted for their meat or for the wildlife trade, while others like lions may be killed if they pose a threat to someone’s livelihood — such as their livestock — or their lives, Johnson told AFP.
“These human elements actually have a much greater impact than the habitat loss elements,” Johnson said.
Traditionally, habitat loss has been seen as the primary threat to carnivore populations, but researchers say it has been “dwarfed” by human development.
The study, published in Nature Communications, concluded that as human communities become more affluent and socioeconomic growth slows, carnivore populations may recover.
The authors say this is partly due to better habitat protection, but mainly because people have become more caring for the animals and have less desire — and need — to kill them.
“What you want is for this growth to slow down earlier.” [the carnivore population] it goes away completely, so it has at least a chance of recovery,” Johnson said.
Rebounding the wolf
According to researchers at the University of Reading, gray wolf populations have already increased in Europe, growing by 1,800 percent since the 1960s, thanks to a better quality of life and slower economic development on the continent.
That recovery is not only happening in protected parks but also in wild areas.
Brown bears and lynx are also starting to recover in Europe, Johnson said, while tiger populations in India have similarly started to rebound.
But several parts of Africa did not support the overall findings – the continent did not experience rapid development, but carnivore populations declined – and Johnson said this may be because much of the population decline occurred decades ago under colonial regimes.
The findings present an inherent tension between prioritizing human development versus carnivore protection, and Johnson suggested that wealthier nations—responsible for much of the carnivore decline—could support less developed nations through targeted financial support.
This could include paying communities in biodiversity hotspots enough to make a living while promoting conservation.
“If you lock people into poverty, people will never coexist with biodiversity,” Johnson said, adding that he hopes policy will move beyond treating carnivore loss as a narrow issue.
“My real hope is that we start thinking about this as a socio-economic problem as well as an environmental problem.”
The work covered 50 carnivore species in over 80 countries over the past 50 years.
Carnivore populations have seen dramatic declines globally in the past century, with lions and tigers absent from more than 90 percent of their historic range.
In the UK, many native carnivore species such as lynx, wolf and bear have already been hunted to extinction.