By Hannah Evans, Harris Crystal Palace
Evans, H. (2022) Preventing the loss of apex predators. Routes 3(2): 99-106
This article explores ways in which humans can prevent the loss of apex predators, as humans have been one of the main factors that have led to apex predators becoming extinct. It is important to investigate this because a reduction in apex predators leads to an increase in their prey population. The increased population of prey will consume more vegetation than before, decreasing the population of vegetation overall. This can lead to a loss of equilibrium in a food chain. This essay analyses ways in which apex predators are being lost- through poaching, habitat loss, illegal mining, and construction- and explored how these events can be mitigated through a carnivore-human coexistence. This can be done through the introduction of harsher laws, the education of the public, and more sustainable consumption.
Since the start of industrialisation in 1800 humans have become a global geophysical force (Crutzen, 2002), influencing changes in the Earth’s environment. Increased intensity of land use has led to the loss of natural habitats, which has impacted the amount and perseverance of single species and species diversity (Ryall and Fahrig, 2006). Land use change has led to an estimated 30% decrease in biodiversity and overexploitation has led to a 20% decrease1. Due to the high rate at which species diversity is being reduced and because predators are often considered to be more in danger of extinction than other trophic levels. As they need to eat a considerable proportion of food and traipse territories that intersect with human territories, causing conflict. Trophic cascades- which can be defined as species interactions that originate with the predator and spread down through food chains (Ripple et al. 2016)- are being severed. As a result, the loss of apex predators removes necessary interactions leading to a sequence of additional species extinctions (Donohue et al. 2017). As well as a change in behaviour from species in lower trophic levels. Allen (2020) looks at the severe consequences a change in behaviour of prey can have, for example, increased browsing for food due to the loss of top predators can cause a decrease in vegetation population. Which can affect the population size of other consumers who rely on that specific vegetation. Therefore, it’s important to explore why this is happening and find ways to prevent it. Firstly, this essay will investigate the effect of poaching and habitat loss on Amur Leopards and possible prevention methods. Secondly, it will explore the detrimental repercussions of illegal mining and construction on giant river otters.
2. Amur Leopard: poaching and habitat loss
The Amur leopard is the most critically endangered of all the leopards. They live up to 10- 15 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity. They are endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, current there are only eighty left in the wild2. Poaching of the Amur leopard occurs due to their spotted fur; each Amur leopard has a unique spot pattern. Attempts to stop the poaching of leopards and other animals transpire through severe consequences. For example, in Russia it is highly protected, with fines of up to one million Russian rubles and jail time of 2 years for killing, storing, transporting, or selling parts of an Amur leopard3. However, increased wildlife protection does not always work as people can go around the rules due to corrupt governments. For example, due to governments directly benefitting from the money brought in by poaching, they might feel inclined to sit back and ignore the poaching rules. Without officials enforcing wildlife regulation laws, it doesn’t matter if they’re there or not. Therefore, to protect apex predators we need harsher laws and to educate the public on the importance of top predators. This would help prevent people from poaching and encourage people to become wildlife scouts and rangers who would help enforce wildlife regulations. This would curb the loss of apex predators and stop whole ecosystems from being disrupted due to the loss of them.
The Amur leopard population also faced habitat loss, which led to a decrease in their population. The Amur-Heilong landscape straddles the border of China and Russia- as seen in Figure 1. It’s one of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world. It’s home to the Amur leopard, Amur tigers, and 2800 plant species. Amur-Heilong offers an important refuge for migratory waterfowl like Oriental white storks and red-crowned cranes. However, due to the international demand for timber, energy, and animal products the area is put at risk4. This poses a huge threat to not only apex predators but all local wildlife that live and rely on the area. However, there is still hope, organisations like World Wildlife have schemes in place to restore habitats and protect species. For example, World Wildlife promotes sustainable forestry. World Wildlife states that they do this by working with their Global Forest and Trade network to facilitate trade between companies committed to responsible forestry practices. They also state that they work with governments to encourage the use of hydropower energy to strike a sustainable balance between the needs of humans and the region’s ecological integrity. Therefore, a way to prevent habitat loss is by finding a sustainable way to meet humans’ demands for more resources while protecting our environment, even if it is more expensive. As the long-term impact of losing top predators that reside in these areas is much more detrimental than spending time and money working on sustainable solutions.
3. Giant otter: illegal mining and construction
The giant river otter is the largest member of the mustelid family, they are sociable and live in families of 3-10 individuals. They are the apex predator of the Amazonian lakes and get their main source of food (fish) from these lakes5. As the top predator in the aquatic system, they control prey species’ population sizes, keeping the river ecosystem in balance. They are also an ‘indicator’ species, this means that to gain a sense of the population health of the entire river population you can just look at the giant river otter. However, the giant otter what listed as endangered in 1999 and the wild population is less the 5,000. This is due to decades of poaching for its pelt during the 1950s and ’60s6. Currently, habitat degradation and river contamination are the main threats to giant river otters. This is due to illegally mining gold in the area- mine drainage is metal-rich water that can contaminate water and disrupt the growth and reproduction of aquatic plants and animals (Dhir, 2018). Therefore, giant otters are not only affected directly through mining degrading the riverbanks they inhabit but indirectly through less fish being available and the bioaccumulation of mercury. There is a project between the San Diego Zoo and Wild CRU who have created a research team to understand how the demography, behaviour, and health of giant otters are being affected by the changes to their environment. By seeing how the otters and their ecosystem are negatively affected, people can be educated, and laws can be put down or better enforced to protect these apex predators7. For that reason, it is significant to have people observing and recording the negative impacts of human activities on apex predators. This is because it helps provide evidence and grounds for why laws on wildlife regulation need to be harsher and to better encourage people and communities to act.
Giant otters are also endangered due to the construction of roads and infrastructure to improve access to remote watersheds, which were once a refuge for giant otters from human disturbance. Therefore, it is important to ensure that before beginning construction the species present are considered, to prevent animals from becoming endangered and to protect those that are. Along with more pressure on governments to make sure people are abiding by the laws and no corners are being cut. This can be done by educating others so people can start advocating for the protection of endangered species. This would force the government to act and make changes that mean species are not so severely affected by human activities.
In conclusion, although many apex predators are already endangered there are ways to prevent more from being put in the same situation. This can be done through research teams surveying the damage various human activities have on apex predators. These facts can then be used to educate and inform the public, which would in turn put pressure on the government to not only make harsher laws but also inform them. Moreover, the government would be forced to look at more sustainable ways to provide for the increased demand of resources for humans, while still making sure the environment is protected. Furthermore, by educating the public more people will want to become wildlife scouts and rangers who help conserve species.
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