Murphy: Big Cat Bummer

The jaguar was the featured endangered cat by the UN this year. ( )

Each year, the UN General Assembly designates March 3 as UN World Wildlife Day, with a theme that addresses an ongoing challenge facing wildlife populations around the globe.

Let’s be clear: The threat to wildlife can be condensed into a single fact: Seven billion people.

With that many humans inhabiting the Earth — the majority concentrated in tropical and semi-tropical regions in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the most endangered species share the habitat — it is increasingly difficult to maintain the large tracts of rainforests, savannahs and even tundra where the species the UN cares about tend to live.

“This year, the spotlight falls on the world’s big cats,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. “These charismatic creatures are universally revered for their grace and power, yet they are increasingly in danger of extinction.”

That sentiment echoes how most save-the-wildlife campaigns are positioned: they portray lions, tigers and leopards as the poster children for wildlife protection.

This year, the focus is on jaguars.

The jaguar, which once roamed from Arizona to the Argentine pampas, is an incredibly powerful predator, with jaws so strong it can crush the skulls of caimans, a South American alligator. Jaguars not only dive into rivers to attack these caimans, they can climb trees to capture monkeys and birds and, of course, hunt down a variety of creatures on land, just like their big-cat cousins on other continents.

In a recent cover story in National Geographic magazine, it was noted that despite its prowess as a hunter and the remarkable variety of its prey, the jaguar’s evolutionary adaptation now works against its survival. Unlike other cats that form packs or prides, jaguars are solitary, and roam across what is often an amazingly large territory.

As development, farming and logging have encroached on the tropical rainforests in Brazil and neighboring countries, jaguars find it difficult to survive.

Part of the problem, as the UN emphasized in its World Wildlife Day messaging, is overall loss of its habitat. However, the rainforest hadn’t been systematically reduced. Instead, haphazard development has turned what was once a vast, unending stretch of forest into disconnected pockets that force jaguars to hunt ever closer to people near developed areas that no longer offer the habitat needed for their preferred prey to survive.

That compromises their survival and allows poachers the opportunity to hunt them down.

Misguided Accusations
All that is a long-winded way of arriving at the problem with the positioning adopted by the UN and most conservation groups: They’re not blaming the governments of the countries that comprise the jaguars’ habitat for their utter lack of planning and near-total absence of conservation initiatives — for too long the rainforests have been considered a “limitless” resource — they’ve chosen to blame people in the developed world.

We’re the problem, according to such activists as Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, who addressed the challenge embodied in World Wildlife Day.

Why? Because of meat-eating.

“I went to Brazil as part of my investigation into the role that factory farming plays in the threat of extinction, the jaguar,” Lymbery stated on his website ( “When I thought of jaguars, I had imagined them skulking through grassland or slinking through the dense vegetation of a tropical rainforest, but my quest took me to a flat and featureless expanse of soya in Brazil’s agricultural heartland.”

He wrote that he “witnessed first-hand how the remorseless march of soya — fuel for factory farms — is gobbling up the rainforest,” shrinking jaguars’ habitat in ways more detrimental beyond just a calculation of total forest acreage lost.

According to Lymbery and his allies, the increase in cultivation of soybeans is a function of Western nations’ meat consumption, and if we would all just turn veggie, the jaguars’ survival would be assured.

That’s wrong on so many levels.

Yes, Brazil is a major exporter of soybeans, much of which is processed for animal feed. But the country has also leveled huge swaths of rainforest to cultivate sugar cane used to produce biofuel, an initiative that is at least as significant a factor impacting wildlife as growing soybeans.

More importantly, if we all became vegetarians, wouldn’t we need to be eating much of that soybean output ourselves, instead of using it as livestock feed? If meat and dairy production disappeared globally, hundreds of trillions of calories would need to be sourced from plant-based alternatives.

Like soybeans.

Also keep in mind that aquaculture has become a major source of seafood and shellfish worldwide, and guess what’s an essential source of feed for those industries? Again, there is no way to eliminate the farmed sources of calories and protein without switching to vegetarian substitutes, which brings us right back to why there’s been such a growth market for soy.

The ultimate answer to protection of wildlife species, whether iconic big cats or far less glamorous but equally important species further down the food chain, like plankton, which feeds the salmon on which killer whales subsist, is implementation of comprehensive conservation planning.

Unless and until people in the developing world have alternatives to slash-and-burn subsistence farming and/or illegal poaching to supply the black market in exotic animal teeth, pelts and organs — and governments there get serious about protecting tropical and subtropical habitats — we can continue to document the demise of some of the world’s most magnificent animals.

Lymbery argued that “cheap meat” in Europe and North America is killing the jaguar.

Newsflash: meat isn’t cheap anymore, and simply switching to soy-based foods won’t save the jaguar.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.