Every animal is the end result of millions of years of evolution, and when you remove particular species entire ecosystems become vulnerable to instability. An international team of scientists from the U.S., Australia, Sweden, and Italy are warning against the practice of “carnivore cleansing,” where humans kill top predators and force them out of their territories. This behavior has catastrophic consequences for habitats, and it’s also connected to climate change, agriculture, and economics.

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A recent study headed by Professor William Ripple from the department of forest ecosystems and society at Oregon State University found that over three quarters of the 31 species of predators observed are in decline and 17 now only occupy half of the territory they once held. Across the globe, humans kill carnivores that prey on livestock, shoot them for sport, or develop the land where they once roamed.

Taking carnivores out of their positions as top predators can cause great damage and humans can not substitute the role they play in ecosystems. When a population is removed from an ecosystem, its prey can become so numerous that they strip a region of its resources and affect species all along the food chain.

In Yellowstone National Park, the eradication of wolves has resulted in more herbivores browsing the landscape, stripping the area of vegetation and wiping out food sources for other animals. Fewer lions and leopards in Africa have caused olive baboons populations to explode, threatening crops and livestock. When prey are allowed to take full advantage, they can even clear plants that humans rely on for food and to sequester carbon dioxide.

Professor Ripple and colleagues plan to focus on seven key carnivores, including the Eurasian lynx, African lion, leopard, grey wolf, cougar, sea otter, and dingo. They hope their research and advocacy efforts can form policies modeled after the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe created by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature. As was seen when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, ecosystems have the potential to bounce back. Whether or not humans allow that to happen depends on a radical change of perception and public policy.

Via the Guardian

Images via Wikicommons users Fae and Gunnar Ries