The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has been labelling the iconic lion as ‘vulnerable’ since 1996. Various estimates show that populations have been going down by about 30–50% over each 20-year period of the second half of the 20th century. Starting with a population of around 400,000 in 1950, lions are now down to around 16,500-47,000 living in the wild based on estimates from 2002–2004 (certainly less than that now).
What’s happening? Mostly habitat loss and conflicts with humans, as well as some disease outbreaks.
The best way to illustrate just how much things have changed for lions is with the map above. The red areas show the species’ historic range, while the blue areas show where they can be found today… Sad, isn’t it?
I trully hope that this beautiful animal will not be devanished one day. Theere is nothing like hearing the lion roaring from your tenth. I had this amazing feeling both in Botswana and Namibia and there is nothing compaable to it!
To end this post, some lion pics from my last trips
You don’t have to look far to see the woolly influence of sheep on our cultural lives. They turn up as symbols of peace and a vaguely remembered pastoral way of life in our poetry, our art and our Christmas pageants. Wolves also rank high among our cultural icons, usually in connection with the words “big” and “bad.” And yet there is now a debate underway about substituting the wolf for the sheep on the (also iconic) green hills of Britain.
The British author and environmental polemicist George Monbiot has largely instigated the anti-sheep campaign, which builds on a broader “rewilding” movement to bring native species back to Europe. Until he recently relocated, Mr. Monbiot used to look up at the bare hills above his house in Machynlleth, Wales, and seethe at what Lord Tennyson lovingly called “the livelong bleat / Of the thick-fleeced sheep.” Because of overgrazing by sheep, he says, the deforested uplands, including a national park, looked “like the aftermath of a nuclear winter.”
“I have an unhealthy obsession with sheep,” Mr. Monbiot admits, in his book “Feral.” “I hate them.” In a chapter titled “Sheepwrecked,” he calls sheep a “white plague” and “a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution.”
The thought of all those sheep — more than 30 million nationwide — makes Mr. Monbiot a little crazy. But to be fair, sheep seem to lead us all beyond the realm of logic. The nibbled landscape that he denounces as “a bowling green with contours” is beloved by the British public. Visitors (including this writer, otherwise a wildlife advocate) tend to feel the same when they hike the hills and imagine they are still looking out on William Blake’s “green and pleasant land.” Even British conservationists, who routinely scold other countries for letting livestock graze in their national parks, somehow fail to notice that Britain’s national parks are overrun with sheep.
Mr. Monbiot detects “a kind of cultural cringe” that keeps people from criticizing sheep farming. (In part, he blames children’s books for clouding vulnerable minds with idyllic ideas about farming.) Sheep have “become a symbol of nationhood, an emblem almost as sacred as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God,” he writes. Much of the nation tunes in ritually on Sunday nights to BBC television’s “Countryfile,” a show about rural issues, which he characterizes as an escapist modern counterpart to pastoral poetry. “If it were any keener on sheep,” he says, “it would be illegal.”
The many friends of British sheep have not yet called for burning Mr. Monbiot at the stake. But they have protested. “Without our uplands, we wouldn’t have a UK sheep industry,” Phil Bicknell, an economist for the National Farmers Union pointed out. “Farmgate sales of lamb are worth over £1bn” — or $1.7 billion — “to U.K. agriculture.” The only wolves he wanted to hear about were his own Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. A critic for The Guardian, where Mr. Monbiot contributes a column, linked the argument against sheep, rather unfairly, to anti-immigrant nativists, adding “sheep have been here a damn sight longer than Saxons.”
Mr. Monbiot acknowledges the antiquity of sheep-keeping in Britain. But the subjugation of the uplands by sheep, he says, only really got going around the 17th century, as the landlords enclosed the countryside, evicted poor farmers, and cleared away the forests from the hillsides and moorlands, particularly in Scotland. Britain is, he writes, inexplicably choosing “to preserve a 17th-century cataclysm.” The sheep wouldn’t be in the uplands at all, he adds, without annual taxpayer subsidies, which average £53,000 per farm in Wales.
He proposes an end to this artificial foundation for the “agricultural hegemony,” to be replaced by a more lucrative economy of walking and wildlife-based activities. He also argues for bringing wolves back to Britain, for reasons both scientific (“to reintroduce the complexity and trophic diversity in which our ecosystems are lacking”) and romantic (wolves are “inhabitants of the more passionate world against which we have locked our doors”). But he acknowledges that it would be foolish to force rewilding on the public. “If it happens, it should be done with the consent and active engagement of the people who live on and benefit from the land.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the sheep are in full bleating retreat, and the wolves are resurgent. Shepherds and small farmers are abandoning marginal land at an annual rate of roughly a million hectares, or nearly 4,000 square miles, according to Wouter Helmer, co-founder of the group Rewilding Europe. That’s half a Massachusetts every year left open for the recovery of native species.
Wolves returned to Germany around 1998, and they have been spotted recently in the border areas of Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. In France, the sheep in a farming region just over two hours from Paris suffered at least 22 reported wolf attacks last year. But environmentalists there say farmers would do better protesting against dogs, which they say kill 100,000 sheep annually. Wolves are now a protected species across Europe, where their population quadrupled after the 1970s. Today an estimated 11,500 wolves roam there.
Lynx, golden jackals, European bison, moose, Alpine ibex and even wolverines have also rebounded, according to a recent study commissioned by Rewilding Europe. Mr. Helmer says his group aims to develop ecotourism on an African safari model, with former shepherds finding new employment as guides. That may sound naïve. But he sees rewilding as a realistic way to prosper as the European landscape develops along binary lines, with urbanized areas and intensive agriculture on one side and wildlife habitat with ecotourism on the other.
In northern Scotland, Paul Lister is working on an ecotourism scheme to bring back wolves and bears on his Alladale Wilderness Reserve, where he has already planted more than 800,000 native trees. He still needs government permission to keep predators on a proposed 50,000-acre fenced landscape. That’s a long way from introducing them to the wild, on the model of Yellowstone National Park. Even so, precedent suggests that it will be a battle.
Though beavers are neither big nor bad, a recent trial program to reintroduce them to the British countryside caused furious public protest. (One writer denounced “the emotion-based obsession with furry mammals of the whiskery type.”) And late last year, when five wolves escaped from the Colchester Zoo, authorities quickly shot two of them dead. A police helicopter was deployed to hunt and kill another, and a fourth was recaptured. Prudently, the fifth wolf slunk back into its cage, defeated.
Rewilding? At least for now, Britain once again stands alone (well, alone with its 30 million sheep) against the rising European tide.
IN THE REVIEW “STATUS AND ECOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST CARNIVORES” (10 January, DOI: 10.1126/science.1241484), W. J. Ripple et al. claim that meat consumption by humans is one of many threats to carnivores and biodiversity. We argue that human carnivory is in fact the single greatest threat to overall biodiversity.
Livestock production accounts for up to 75% of all agricultural lands and 30% of Earth’s land surface, making it the single largest anthropogenic land use (1). Meat and feedstock production is rapidly rising in biodiversity-rich developing countries. For example, in China, animal products currently constitute ~20% of diets, but this amount is expected to increase to ~30% or higher over the next two decades (2). For China to attain a level of carnivory similar to the United States, its projected 1.5 billion inhabitants would increase consumption of animal products by almost 30% (3). Given current trends, 1 billion additional hectares of natural habitats—an area larger than the United States—will be converted to agriculture by 2050 (4).
Free ranging cattle in Galicia, NW of Iberian Peninsula.
Substituting meat with soy protein could reduce total human biomass appropriation in 2050 by 94% below 2000 baseline levels (5) and greatly reduce other environmental impacts related to use of water, fertilizer, fossil fuel, and biocides. Soy protein production for global livestock markets is the second leading cause of Amazonian deforestation after pasture creation. Eliminating livestock and instead growing crops, including soy protein, only for direct human consumption could negate future agricultural land expansion, while increasing the number of calories available for human consumption by as much as 70% (6)— enough to feed an additional 4 billion people, exceeding the projected global population growth of 2 to 3 billion (6). This savings in land and calories is due to eliminating the loss of ~90% of the energy available in plants during the conversion to livestock (7).
We argue that reducing and maintaining animal products to even 10% of the global human diet would enable the future global population to be fed on just the current area of agricultural lands. Without a global decrease in per capita meat consumption by humans, the loss of natural habitats, large carnivores, and biodiversity is certain to continue.
BRIAN MACHOVINA* AND KENNETH J. FEELEY
Florida International University, Miami, FL 33199, USA. *Corresponding author. E-mail: email@example.com
edited by Jennifer Sills
1. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and
options” (FAO, Rome, 2006); http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
2. M. A. Keyzer, M. D. Merbis, I. F. P. W. Pavel, C. F. A. van Wesenbeeck, Ecol. Econ. 55, 187
3. S. Bonhommeau et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 20617 (2013).
4. D. Tilman et al., Science 292, 281 (2001).
5. N. Pelletier, P. Tyedmers, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107, 18371 (2010).
6. E. Cassidy, P. C. West, J. S. Gerber, J. A. Foley, Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 8 (2013).
7. H. Charles et al., Science 327, 812 (2010).
Already on the decline, demise of giant trees may be hastened by global warming.
Already on the decline worldwide, big trees face a dire future due to habitat fragmentation, selective harvesting by loggers, exotic invaders, and the effects of climate change, warns an article published this week in New Scientist magazine.
Reviewing research from forests around the world, William F. Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, provides evidence of decline among the world’s “biggest and most magnificent” trees and details the range of threats they face. He says their demise will have substantial impacts on biodiversity and forest ecology, while worsening climate change.
“To persist, big trees need a safe place to live and long periods of stability,” he told mongabay.com via email. “But time and stability are becoming very rare commodities in our modern world.”
Giant trees offer critical habitat and forage for wildlife, while transpiring massive amounts of water through their leaves, contributing to local rainfall. Old trees also lock up massive amounts of carbon — in some forests they can account for up to a quarter of living biomass.
Dipterocarps are commonly targeted by loggers in Southeast Asia. This Dipterocarp was photographed in Borneo by Rhett A. Butler.
But their ability to sequester carbon and render other ecosystem services is threatened by human activities. Some of the world’s largest trees are particularly targeted by loggers. The oldest trees are among the most valuable and therefore the first to be cut in “virgin” forest areas.
Big trees are also sensitive to fragmentation, which exposes them to stronger winds and drier conditions. Laurance’s own work in the Amazon has shown substantial die-off of canopy giants in small forest fragments. Their susceptibility seems counter-intuitive given big trees’ life histories, which invariably include periods of drought and other stress.
“All around the tropics, big canopy and emergent trees are succumbing to strong droughts,” Laurance said. “That’s been a surprise to me and many other ecologists, because big, ancient trees would have had to survive many droughts in the past.”
Forest giants may suffer disproportionately from climate change, writes Laurance in New Scientist, highlighting research in La Selva, Costa Rica by David and Deborah Clark.
“Trees are probably getting a double-whammy when the thermometer rises,’ says David Clark. “During the day, their photosynthesis shuts down when it gets too warm, and at night they consume more energy because their metabolic rate increases, much as a reptile’s would do when it gets warmer.” With less energy being produced in warmer years and more being consumed just to survive, there is less energy available for growth.
The Clarks’ hypothesis, if correct, means tropical forests could shrink over time. The largest, oldest trees would progressively die off and tend not to be replaced. Alarmingly, this might trigger a positive feedback that could destabilize the climate: as older trees die, forests would release some of their stored carbon into the atmosphere, prompting a vicious circle of further warming, forest shrinkage and carbon emissions.
Giant Kapok tree in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Laurance notes climate change is having less direct impacts on forests, including creating conditions for exotic pathogens to thrive. For example, pathogens such as Dutch Elm Disease, introduced by trade or circumstance, can devastate native forests.
All told, the outlook for big trees is not good, according to Laurance.
“The decline of big trees foretells a different world where ancient behemoths are replaced by short-lived pioneers and generalists that can grow anywhere, where forests store less carbon and sustain fewer dependent animals, where giant cathedral-like crowns become a thing of the past.”
The total forest area of the world is about 4 billion hectares, which represents nearly 30 percent of the Earth’s landmass. Approximately 56 percent of these forests are located in tropical and subtropical areas.
Forest cover is unevenly distributed. Only seven countries possess about 60 percent of it, 25 countries around 82 percent and 170 countries share the remaining 18 percent.
Planted forests account for approximately 3.8 percent of total forest area, or 140 million hectares.
Net global forest loss is estimated to be about 7.3 million hectares per year for the period 2000-2005.
This represents a decrease from the period 1990–2000, for which the average deforestation rate was 8.9 million hectares per year.
The highest amounts of deforestation occurred in South America, with 4.3 million hectares per year, followed by Africa with 4 million hectares per year.
Forests and livelihoods
More than 1 billion people rely heavily on forests for their livelihoods.3
More than 2 billion people, a third of the world’s population, use biomass fuels, mainly firewood, to cook and to heat their homes.
Hundreds of millions of people rely on traditional medicines harvested from forests.4
In some 60 developing countries, hunting and fishing on forested land supplies more than a fifth of protein requirements.5
Forests and the economy6
In 2003, the international trade in sawn wood, pulp, paper and boards amounted to almost US $150 billion, or just over 2 percent of world trade.
The developed world accounted for two-thirds of this production and consumption.
In many developing countries, forest-based enterprises provide at least one-third of all rural non-farm employment and generate income through the sale of wood products.
The value of the trade in non-timber forest products has been estimated at US $11 billion. These products include pharmaceutical plants, mushrooms, nuts, syrups and cork.
Forests and climate change7
It is estimated that 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon are released annually due to land use change. The major portion is from tropical deforestation.
This represents about 20 percent of current global carbon emissions, which is greater than the percentage emitted by the global transport sector with its intensive use of fossil fuels.
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) 2007. State of the World’s Forests 2007, FAO, Rome.  FAO 2009. State of the World’s Forests 2009, FAO, Rome.  World Bank 2004. Sustaining Forests: A Development Strategy, Washington.  UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2009. Indicators of Sustainable Development (1 June 2009).  Mery, G., Alfaro, R., Kanninen, M. and Lobovikov, M. (eds.) 2005. Forests in the Global Balance: Changing Paradigms, IUFRO World Series 17. International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO), Helsinki.  World Bank 2004. Sustaining Forests: A Development Strategy, Washington D.C.  IPCC 2007. Summary for Policymakers In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Sciences Basis (1 June 2009).