Small Wild Cats Face Big Threats Including Lack of Conservation Funds
Dipping through the underbrush, in the jungles of Borneo or Bangladesh, a fierce predator slinks. Orbed, glowing eyes glance out from an angular, feline face, as it soft-steps through the shadows. All creatures small—whether mammal, bird or insect—flee at this predator’s approach. Indeed, it is only these smaller animals that have cause for fear: our predator is about the size of a house cat.
Yet unlike a house cat, an encounter with a small wildcat is an exceptional rarity. Relatively few people can name wildcat species, and fewer still have laid eyes upon one outside of zoos. As with lions, tigers, and leopards, most small cats’ conservation status wavers between threatened and critically endangered. However, there’s a huge disparity in the amount of funding small cat conservation receives vs. big cat conservation.
According to the Small Wild Cat Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to small cat preservation, the seven iconic big cat species have received 99.22 percent of all funding for cat conservation since 2007. In contrast, the 22 known small cat species around the world received 0.78 percent.
In all, there are 36 known feline species in the wild, spanning continents and habitats. Nearly three-fourths of these are the size of a domestic house cat or slightly larger. Very little is known about most of these small cat species, which is partly why it’s hard to get funding for conservation projects dedicated to them.
But each of these small cats is charismatic in its own special way. In South Africa, for instance, local legend says that black-footed cat, which stands an imposing six inches tall, is so tenacious it can take down giraffes. The marbled cat found in South and Southeast Asia was caught on camera climbing down a tree trunk headfirst—a behavior previously thought reserved only for margay and cloud leopards. And the Asian fishing cat is an adept swimmer and diver, hunting primarily by diving into rivers and streams to chase fish. And some small cat species, such as Borneo’s bay cat and the Andean cat in South America, are so rare that conservationists will fly around the world for an opportunity to see one.
One such conservationist is Dr. Jim Sanderson, founder and director of the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation. The foundation began in 1996, with a mission to ensure small cat survival in their natural habitats worldwide. The organization works with local partners in regions the cats reside.
Sanderson attributes the funding divergence to awareness. Everyone knows the larger, more iconic species, but their smaller relatives’ obscurity means they are overlooked.
“Great apes are an example,” Sanderson explains. “There are many species of primates, and none of those come to mind. It’s those little things that are slipping away under the radar, and it’s all about awareness.”
As with innumerable other wild species, threats to survival come primarily from human development. Habitat loss is the primary driver of extinction for small cats. Sanderson points to timber harvesting, palm oil plantations, mining and industrial shrimp ponds.
“In Borneo there’s a lot of illegal gold mining and river disturbance you have these dredges that are diesel-powered churning up the river bottom looking for gold. The river goes down brown. It’s destroyed. That takes away habitat from the fishing cat and the flat-headed cat,” he says.
The cats’ rarity and the exotic myths about them make them prime targets for poachers and traders who hunt them for their fur, believed medicinal value and for the captive pet trade. In some places the cats are eaten or used for medicinal rituals by the locals, but more often, they are snared or poisoned in retaliation for killing chicken or other livestock. Feral dogs too, sometimes hunt down and kill wild cats. The cats, however, pose no threat to human safety.
The small cats’ plight speaks to a larger trend in conservation. Iconic species take the spotlight, receiving attention and funding, and the lesser-known species fall through the cracks. According to the United Nations Environment Program, an estimated 150 to 200 species go extinct every day. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that a staggering 36 percent of Earth’s species are threatened by extinction.
An ethical question common in conservation circles is how do we value one species above another. Given limited funding and time, circumstances necessitate protecting some organisms more than others. Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, lends some insight into a conservation organization’s priorities.
“Often the need to engage in a campaign to protect a particular species is urgent and immediate,” Curry says. “Species with limited ranges and very high threat levels rise to the top of the priority list for obvious reasons.”
However, geographically strategic approaches can also have a high impact, she says “In addition to addressing the species that are in very hot water, we attempt to launch campaigns to safeguard as many imperiled species as possible over broad geographic areas,” she says. “In this time of rapid human population growth and increasing resource demand, every single species that we lose unravels a piece of the ecosystem that we all depend on for survival and wellbeing.”
Sanderson points to one simple thing that people can do to help small cats. “Read the labels.” For example, products containing palm oil generally contribute to the deforestation that is squeezing cats out. And buying shrimp raised in Thai industrial ponds deprives fishing cats of their habitats. Such thoughtfulness in consumer choices can help these species’ survive.
“I hope we don’t have to have a crisis to mobilize funding. We want to keep moving in the right direction,” Sanderson says.
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By Heather Houser
Compost. Fly less. Reduce your meat consumption. Say no to plastic. These imperatives are familiar ones in the repertoire of individual actions to reduce a person's environmental impact. Don't have kids, or maybe just one. This climate action appears less frequently in that repertoire, but it's gaining currency as climate catastrophes mount. One study has shown that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from having one fewer child in the United States is 20 times higher—yes 2000% greater—than the impact of lifestyle changes like those listed above.
The Stickiness of Population<p>Only five years ago, there was minimal coverage of the child-free for climate movement. AOC is just one of many reasons it's lighting up now. New scientific analyses, scholarly debates, and social media conversations have shined a light on reproduction and climate. The influential <a href="https://www.drawdown.org/" target="_blank">Project Drawdown</a> framework for climate mitigation includes a list of solutions ranked by their potential impact, two of which—educating girls and providing access to family planning—they project will have <a href="https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/table-of-solutions" target="_blank">a greater combined impact</a> on reducing greenhouse gas emissions than almost all other climate solutions because of their effect on fertility rates.</p><p>In January 2020, <a href="https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806" target="_blank">11,000 scientists signed onto a study that warned</a> about the unfolding climate emergency. The authors prescribe steps in six sectors that can prevent irreversible planetary collapse, including that "the world population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity." The framework they propose includes universal access to family planning as well as education and equity for young women. (Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1410465111" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">scientific takes</a> on population-based climate actions are more skeptical about their immediate impact given the scale of fertility reductions needed to balance out longer lifespans.)</p><p>Even before 2020, a new movement was afoot to address climate by forgoing reproduction. Blythe Pepino, a British musician in her 30s, formed BirthStrike in 2018 to build a community of people—typically women-identified—who have opted not to reproduce in response to the ecological and social crises that climate change is creating. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the group recognized the need to acknowledge the oppression that colors conversations about reproduction as it relates to climate and so reformed itself into a support group for those grieving parenthood. Their new stated goal is to channel that loss into action on climate justice.</p><p>Organizations such as <a href="https://conceivablefuture.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Conceivable Future</a>, however, continue to keep reproduction at the fore. Led by climate activists Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli, Conceivable Future is raising awareness about how the climate crisis affects "<a href="https://conceivablefuture.org/about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intimate choices</a>" like reproduction. The Conceivable Future and now-defunct BirthStrike campaigns share ideological terrain with "<a href="https://www.npr.org/2016/08/18/479349760/should-we-be-having-kids-in-the-age-of-climate-change" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">population engineers</a>," a group of bioethicists who <a href="https://doi.org/10.5840/soctheorpract201642430" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">forward policies for</a> limiting the size of the global population through positive incentives like family planning classes and negative ones such as taxes on wealthy procreators. </p><p>In proposing specific policies rather than individual action, population engineers acknowledge the structures within which reproductive choices occur, everything from media influence to the tax code. Even with this shift to the structural, however, the racist, sexist, colonialist, and nativist legacies of the population question within environmentalism still plague child-free for climate. As do the historical and social injustices that constrain so-called choices.</p>
Racism and Xenophobia in Environmentalism<p>This summer and fall, the climate crisis and its correlated catastrophes—<a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/heat-wave-western-united-states/" target="_blank">extreme heat</a>, <a href="https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/14/a-third-of-bangladesh-underwater-after-heavy-rains-floods/" target="_blank">flooding</a>, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/wildfires" target="_blank">wildfires</a>—are intensifying alongside Black Lives Matter uprisings and the <a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2020/06/09/coronavirus-public-health-social-justice/" target="_blank">coronavirus health disparities</a> among Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations. This confluence has brought overdue attention to racism in environmentalism, as evidenced by the Audubon Society's recent <a href="http://audubon.org/magazine/fall-2020/revealing-past-create-future" target="_blank">reckoning</a> with racial injustices in its past and present, including <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-myth-john-james-audubon" target="_blank">publicizing</a> that its famed founder was a White supremacist and a slaveholder. The intersections of <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2020/09/23/election-black-voters-climate/" target="_blank">climate justice and racial justice</a> have also come to the fore through <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/05/climate/heat-minority-school-performance.html" target="_blank">studies of how Black communities are greatly harmed by hotter temperatures</a> and through the popular <a href="https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com/" target="_blank">intersectional environmentalist</a> platform created by Leah Thomas, a young Black activist and "<a href="https://www.greengirlleah.com/about-1" target="_blank">eco-communicator</a>." To these reckonings we need to add the racism and xenophobia that have long characterized environmentally motivated population controls.</p><p>The New York Times recently exposed these sins in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/us/anti-immigration-cordelia-scaife-may.html/" target="_blank">a profile of Cordelia Scaife May</a>, showing how this heir to the Mellon fortune converted a love of birding into a network of anti-immigration, pro-population-control organizations that still influence politics today. In the 1960s May linked threatened birdlife to the rapidly expanding human population. May wasn't wrong to see and worry over this link: A host of human activities—from <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/popular-pesticides-linked-drops-bird-population-180951971/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">toxic agriculture and industry</a> to <a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0050157" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sprawling settlements</a> and <a href="https://www.npr.org/2017/10/05/555949789/light-pollution-can-impact-noctural-bird-migration" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light</a> and <a href="https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/birds-live-near-human-noise-sing-louder-shorter-songs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">noise pollution</a>—decimate avian habitats and habits. May's anti-immigration approach, however, indicates how readily environmentalism can mutate into racist and xenophobic actions.</p><p>The Times investigators show that "protecting natural habitats and helping women prevent unplanned pregnancies merged over time into a single goal of preserving the environment by discouraging offspring altogether." Taken on its own, this goal resonates with Conceivable Future's and population engineers' aims. To be clear, this does not mean that today's child-free climate advocates are racist nativists. However, it does indicate how readily the affiliation arises because of the ugly history of forced population control.</p>
Contemporary Examples<p>And this history is hardly past. For example, race and class conflicts erupted around a population platform within the Sierra Club only 15 years ago. In 2004, a faction of club members took a page from May and argued that more people living in the U.S. meant more encroachment on less developed land and water. As with May's effort, this anti-immigration push amounted to "the greening of hate," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League, who entered the dispute when they found White supremacists lobbying for anti-immigration Sierra Club board candidates. A 2010 <a href="https://www.splcenter.org/20100630/greenwash-nativists-environmentalism-and-hypocrisy-hate" target="_blank">SPLC report</a> firms up the connection between environmentalist intentions and racist agendas by explaining why White nationalist John Tanton infiltrated the club: "Using an organization perceived by the public as part of the liberal left would insulate nativists from charges of racism—charges that … would likely otherwise stick."</p><p>Charges of racism ultimately did stick to Tanton and his anti-immigration, pro-population-control allies. And they continue to stick in analyses of the child-free for climate movement today. Earlier this year, climate journalist Meehan Crist <a href="https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n05/meehan-crist/is-it-ok-to-have-a-child" target="_blank">took up</a> AOC's question of whether it's OK to have a child. In arriving at an answer (for her, yes), she affiliates child-free positions with "anti-feminist, racist and anti-human" values and with bad science. "Darker visions" proceed from this analysis, she writes, visions of those who believe "racial purity will save the planet. Closed borders. . . . Ecofascist death squads." The dark visions Crist spins from the child-free for climate question underscore how readily calls for reproductive limits touch the third rails of modern environmentalism: racism, eugenics, xenophobia, even death-dealing.</p><p>We get even closer to these third rails when we consider that the question of whether to reproduce is, for some people, no choice at all. Modern efforts to limit fertility, which ramped up after World War II, have targeted poor women in the Global South, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the U.S. using coercion and force. BIPOC reproductive justice advocates such as Loretta Ross have condemned dichotomous pro-abortion-rights versus anti-abortion politics for producing "<a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Radical_Reproductive_Justice/hN-4DgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=loretta%20ross%20radical%20reproductive&pg=PT8&printsec=frontcover&bsq=anemic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">anemic political analyses</a>" that ignore the reality of forced sterilizations in prisons and the appallingly high maternal mortality rate for Black women in the U.S. These are all forms of what medical historian and ethicist Harriet Washington calls "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8WCS1Rs8K8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">medical apartheid</a>."</p>
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By Sharon Guynup
At this time of year, in Russia's far north Laptev Sea, the sun hovers near the horizon during the day, generating little warmth, as the region heads towards months of polar night. By late September or early October, the sea's shallow waters should be a vast, frozen expanse.
Comparison of autumn sea ice formation for the first half of October 2012 (the record year for Arctic sea ice extent loss) and in 2020 (second place for sea ice extent loss). The satellite record goes back to 1979. @Icy_Samuel, data provided by NSIDC
Arctic sea ice extent on Oct. 25, 2020 was at a record low 5.613 million square kilometers for this date, surpassing the record set in 2019 of 6.174 million square kilometers. ChArctic NSIDC
The Arctic appears to be changing into an entirely new climate state due to rapid warming. The extent of sea ice in the late summer, when it reaches its minimum each year, has already entered a statistically different climate, with surface air temperatures and the number of days with rain instead of snow also beginning to transition. Simmi Sinha, ©UCAR
A polar bear prowls the Arctic shoreline. VisualHunt.com
A fire burning through northern forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Greenpeace International
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By Peter A. Kloess
Picture Antarctica today and what comes to mind? Large ice floes bobbing in the Southern Ocean? Maybe a remote outpost populated with scientists from around the world? Or perhaps colonies of penguins puttering amid vast open tracts of snow?
Giants of the Sky<p>As their name suggests, these ancient birds had sharp, bony spikes protruding from sawlike jaws. Resembling teeth, these spikes would have helped them catch squid or fish. We also studied another remarkable feature of the pelagornithids – their imposing size.</p><p>The largest flying bird alive today is the <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/group/albatrosses/" target="_blank">wandering albatross</a>, which has a wingspan that reaches 11 ½ feet. The Antarctic pelagornithids fossils we studied have a wingspan nearly double that – about 21 feet across. If you tipped a two-story building on its side, that's about 20 feet.</p><p>Across Earth's history, very few groups of vertebrates have achieved powered flight – and only two reached truly giant sizes: birds and a group of <a href="https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/pterosaurs-flight-in-the-age-of-dinosaurs/what-is-a-pterosaur" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reptiles called pterosaurs</a>.</p>
Full-size model of a Quetzalcoatlus on display at JuraPark in Baltow, Poland. Aneta Leszkiewicz / Wikimedia<p>Pterosaurs ruled the skies during the Mesozoic Era (252 million to 66 million years ago), the same period that dinosaurs roamed the planet, and they reached hard-to-believe dimensions. <a href="https://www.wired.com/2013/11/absurd-creature-of-the-week-quetz/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Quetzalcoatlus</a> stood 16 feet tall and had a colossal 33-foot wingspan.</p>
Birds Get Their Opportunity<p>Birds originated while dinosaurs and pterosaurs were still roaming the planet. But when an <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/dinosaur-killing-asteroid-impact-chicxulub-crater-timeline-destruction-180973075/" target="_blank">asteroid struck the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago</a>, dinosaurs and pterosaurs both perished. Some <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-birds-survived-asteroid-impact-wiped-out-dinosaurs" target="_blank">select birds survived</a>, though. These survivors diversified into the thousands of bird species alive today. Pelagornithids evolved in the period right after dinosaur and pterosaur extinction, when competition for food was lessened.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/spp2.1284" target="_blank">The earliest pelagornithid remains</a>, recovered from 62-million-year-old sediments in New Zealand, were about the size of modern gulls. The first giant pelagornithids, the ones in our study, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-75248-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">took flight over Antarctica about 10 million years later</a>, in a period called the Eocene Epoch (56 million to 33.9 million years ago). In addition to these specimens, fossilized remains from other pelagornithids have been found on every continent.</p><p>Pelagornithids lasted for about 60 million years before going extinct just before the Pleistocene Epoch (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago). No one knows exactly why, though, because few fossil records have been recovered from the period at the end of their reign. Some paleontologists cite <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/02724634.2011.562268" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">climate change as a possible factor</a>.</p>
Piecing it Together<p>The fossils we studied are fragments of whole bones collected by paleontologists from the University of California at Riverside in the 1980s. In 2003, the specimens were transferred to Berkeley, where they now reside in the <a href="https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of California Museum of Paleontology</a>.</p><p>There isn't enough material from Antarctica to rebuild an entire skeleton, but by comparing the fossil fragments with similar elements from more complete individuals, we were able to assess their size.</p>
In life, the pelagornithid would have had numerous 'teeth,' making it a formidable predator. Peter Kloess, CC BY-NC-SA
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