An international team of scientists reckon the African Lion and the Sunda clouded leopard are the next big cat species to become extinct – because they have lost most of their prey.
Beloved lions face the same challenges as their extinct ancestors, the seven species of big cat that died out at the end of the last Ice Age.
A new study led by scientists from the universities of Sussex, Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru), Aarhus and Goteborg has assessed whether Ice Age extinction trends could be applied to populations of big cat species now.
Four different types of sabre-toothed cats, cave lions and American lions and the American Cheetah all went extinct around up to around 12,000 years ago.
The scientists discovered that if they were alive today, they would only have 25 per cent of their preferred prey species, meaning they would be struggling to survive.
They believe this devastating loss of prey species was a major contributing factor to the extinction of these big cats.
The team have also used the database to work out whether a similar decline in the availability of prey species now could lead to the demise of some of the world’s most well-known big cat species.
Sadly, they discovered that if all the currently threatened and dwindling prey species within their roaming areas disappeared, African lions would be left without 40 per cent of their food supply.
Sunda clouded leopards would lose 37 per cent of their prey species in their forest homes on Borneo and Sumatra, putting both types of big cat at serious risk of extinction.
Worryingly the researchers believe that if this prey loss trend continues this poses ‘a high risk of extinction’ to these two big cat species in particular.
They also report that prey diversity within the geographical ranges of tiger, leopard and cheetah puts them at risk too.
Dr Chris Sandom, from the University of Sussex, said: “This joint study clearly shows that if primary big cat prey continues to decline at such a rate then big cats, including Sunda clouded leopard, lion, tiger and cheetah are at high risk of extinction.
“Where prey species have, or are likely to become extinct, this poses a serious risk to the big cat species which feed on them and we now know this is the continuation of an unhappy trend which began during the last Ice Age.
“We need to buck this Ice Age trend once and for all and to reinforce the urgent need for governments to protect both big cat species and their prey.”
Professor David Macdonald, Director of the University of Oxford’s WildCRU, added: “The fairy-tale consequences of Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard being bare are all too vividly real for modern big cats.
“Our study of the consequences of prey loss – ‘defaunation’ in the jargon – is about, in everyday language ‘what if’ or perhaps better ‘if only’: without the extinctions of the Pleistocene, in which the fingerprints of humanity are all to incriminating, there would have been between one and five more felid species in most…