Big cats are stealthy, breathtakingly beautiful and often nocturnal. They’re notoriously hard for animal lovers to spot in the wild, even while they’re probably watching you. But according to the global wild cat conservation organization Panthera, big cat ecotourism is coming back strong post-pandemic. You just have to know where to look.

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Panthera works with more than 40 wild cats species around the world, trying to ensure a future both for the cats and their habitat. The organization includes biologists, law enforcement experts, data scientists and wild cat advocates. It helps local communities find a way to live in harmony with their wild cat populations, informs the public about the challenges wild cats face and protects cats and prey from poachers. A couple of Panthera’s team talked to Inhabitat about wild cat ecotourism — how it works and where to see cats in their natural habitats.

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An up-close of a tiger to the lens

Ecotourism helps us learn about big cats

As cat lovers know, even the kitties in our houses are mysterious. So a lot is unknown about the giant stealthy carnivores living in remote places. Wild cat researchers help fill in some of these knowledge gaps. Panthera’s Sabi Sands Leopard Project in South Africa is one of the most extensive research studies on leopards in the world.

“The knowledge generated from this research is critical for informing local wildlife management and broader conservation policy, as the patterns and processes governing population trends are only detectable over years and generations,” said Project Coordinator Nikki le Roex.

Since the Sabi Sands leopards have plentiful natural resources and are pretty much free from human influence, the project provides a benchmark for a healthy leopard population. “This allows us to set conservation goals for other persecuted leopard populations,” le Roex said.

Researchers have learned that leopard society is surprisingly complex, and that social stability is key to thriving leopard populations.

“The impact of removing leopards is far greater than simply the loss of one individual; the social flux and resulting shift in spatial dynamics have far greater — often profound — impacts on long-term population viability,” le Roex said. “We now know that population size alone is not a good measure of a viable leopard population, as natural processes such as dispersal, recruitment and genetic health rely on stable social structures and are critical for populations to thrive in the long-term.”

The research has helped them model the impacts of trophy hunting on leopards. It has enabled provincial and statutory authorities in South Africa and elsewhere to adopt more rigorous controls on leopard hunting.

A leopard emerging from a forest

Working with ranchers

Around the world, humans are involved in a livestock versus predator struggle that too often spells doom for wildlife. That is, ranchers try to kill the predator before it kills their livestock.

In Colombia, Panthera country director Jeronimo Rodriguez works to educate ranchers, improve livestock husbandry practices and keep forests healthy so jaguars can survive. Strategies include creating maternity pens to protect the most vulnerable animals, limiting the entry of livestock into rivers and forest corridors, building cattle troughs, implementing electric fences with solar energy to isolate cattle from jaguars and adding light and sound elements to scare them away.

“We’ve even introduced varieties of native creole cattle adapted to tropical ecosystems whose defensive behavior seeks to protect the youngest and most vulnerable animals from jaguars,” he said. “Likewise, we monitor the movement patterns of jaguars inside the ranches with camera traps to understand how they use these lands and provide more evidence to the ranchers to improve their agricultural management and the effectiveness of non-lethal strategies.” 

Rodriguez and his team try to improve jaguars’ reps amongst the people who live closest to the big cats. A Jaguar School program teaches kids about the importance of protecting jaguars and their land. Panthera workers get rancher’s wives and teenage children involved in wild cat monitoring activities within their lands, “aiming to create empathy and awareness of the importance of the biodiversity with which they coexist,” he said.  “All these activities are implemented not only to prevent retaliatory or even preventive killing of jaguars but also to promote coexistence with the species, which is our ultimate goal.”

Training local people as ecotourist guides

In Colombia, jaguar watching as a tourist activity is just starting. Rodriguez stresses the importance of good training for guides, so that both humans and jaguars will feel safe during sightings. Guides learn about biological and ecological characteristics of jaguars, and identification and tracking techniques. They also learn soft skills, such as customer service and language training to communicate with foreign tourists.

“Along with this, we work hand in hand with local communities to develop and strengthen their knowledge about wild cat species,” said Rodriguez. “Through community monitoring activities, men, women and children participate voluntarily in the construction and development of research activities, becoming defenders and spokespersons for wildlife within their communities.”

A leopard walking along a desert area

Top five places to see big cats in the wild

Ready to see cats? Panthera recently identified five top places to visit right now. In addition to Colombia’s Llanos, a giant grassland plains and Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa, Panthera recommends Brazil, Patagonia and India.

In Brazil, Panthera’s Pantanal Jaguar Project showcases big cats in the world’s largest tropical wetland. Who doesn’t want to glimpse jaguars swimming in the Cuiaba River? In Patagonia, Panthera promises an opportunity to see pumas with a backdrop of sweeping vistas, glaciers and granite spires. And if your dream is to see the orange and black stripes of a tiger in the wild, in northern India “Ranthambore National Park is reputed to have the least shy tigers in the nation,” according to Panthera. Avid photographers will relish the chance of mountains, grassy plains and lakes as possible tiger backdrops.

If done ethically, everybody benefits from big cat tourism — tourists, local guides and the big cats themselves.

“Generating capacity for tourism locally is key not only to generate income from the protection of jaguars, but also to change the negative perception that exists towards these species,” said Rodriquez.

Via Panthera

Images via Panthera