#iSTANDfor: wild places
By Luke Hunter
Wild places matter. They matter to all life (including humans- keep reading!) but they matter especially to big carnivores. Lions, tigers, polar bears, grizzlies and wolves require wilderness to survive. Unlike raccoons, rats or people, they cannot live in suburbia. Carnivores sit atop intricate food webs, the apex predator at the centre of innumerable complex interactions among uncountable creatures living in wild habitats. A billion grass plants nourish a million wildebeest that feed a couple thousand lions. Without a landscape sufficiently vast and wild enough to grow that much grass, you don’t get the lions.
Sadly, such landscapes are now rare. Over two-thirds of the earth’s terrestrial land has been transformed by people from forest, savanna and wetlands to agriculture and cities. As wilderness has retracted so too has the range- and numbers- of big cats. At the time Europeans began colonizing Africa in earnest, the lion inhabited virtually the entire continent except for the Sahara Desert and the dense rainforest of the Congo Basin. It was a vast area with relatively few people that might once have been home to a million lions. Imagine: a million lions. Today, there are around 20,000 adult lions living in only eight percent of the area where lions once lived.
Ensuring the survival of these last remaining wilderness tracts is essential- at least, it is to me. I have spent my adult life working to save big cats. I do that mostly because I just love wild cats. The Felidae - the cat family - includes a roster of the most magnificent, charismatic and awe-inspiring species to inhabit our planet. Observing cats in the wild reveals moments of incomparable beauty; a mother cheetah scanning the surroundings for danger as her offspring play obliviously around her; a jaguar silently floating on a river current searching for beach-basking caimans; a lioness calling softly for her sisters as she returns from tending a den of hidden cubs. I cannot imagine living in an impoverished world where those species have vanished, those moments lost forever.
But, even if you don’t care about cats like I do, you should care for the wild places they inhabit. Large, wild and intact ecosystems guarantee the basic necessities of all life. Wild places filter the air we breathe; a billion grass plants (or trees or bushes or anything green) also sequester many tons of atmosphere-warming carbon and pump out a constant flow of oxygen. Wild places safeguard billions of gallons of clean freshwater. Wild places buffer human communities against landslides, erosion and tidal surges. Even as humanity becomes ever-more urbanized (and over half the world’s population now lives in urban areas), humans could not survive without the benefits furnished by wild places. We reap those benefits, even in our mega-cities of sprawling suburbs and air-conditioned apartments, often far from the source but ultimately just as intimately connected and wholly reliant on them as the lion.
To save the lion, and all the spectacular apex predators like them, we must save wild places. But those wild places also save us. By protecting cats, we safeguard entire ecosystems which, in turn, safeguard the essential processes for all life. I stand for wild places. I stand for wild places, because I want to live in a world where lions, tigers and leopards can live as they have for millennia. I stand for wild places because without them, humanity is not only diminished, we are destroyed.
Luke Hunter is the President and Chief Conservation Officer of the global wild cat conservation organization Panthera.