Image by Brigitte Werner from Pixabay 


By looking at our lazy domestic cat [Felis silvestris catus (Linnaeus, 1758)] yawning away the day in the snug corner of the study; one fails to realize that they are related to the wild cats both big and small spread across all the major continents of our green planet in terms of taxonomy, genetics, evolution, and biogeography. However, the World Wildlife Day 2018 poster by WWF depicts a sad and deplorable story of our majestic big cats around the planet. The poster suggests that tigers (Panthera tigris) with Endangered conservation status and five extant and three extinct subspecies now roam in only 4% of their historic range with 95% global population loss reported worldwide. It is estimated that there are only around 3900 wild tigers left in the world. India represents the largest habitat of wild tigers across the planet; and the Indian tiger or Bengal tiger subspecies [(Panthera Tigris (Linnaeus, 1758)] are the most widespread species of wild tigers in the world. One particular subspecies famously called the Royal Bengal tiger found in the Indian subcontinent across Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Bangladesh currently represents the largest subpopulations of wild tigers in South Asia and is thriving despite all odds. Thanks to the sincere conservation efforts of the local governments and their highly coordinated inter and intra-governmental cooperation, the Royal Bengal tiger has certainly made a big comeback across its premier habitats in South Asia according to the last international tiger census. However, the illegal wildlife markets operating in China and some other SE Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia are still a big threat not only to tiger conservation; but to almost any wildlife in the entire region. Tigers around the planet have been seriously impacted by habitat loss and severe poaching pressures due to the high value of tiger skin and other body parts in the illegal wildlife markets. Strong and dedicated conservative measures and strict wildlife legislature have been successful in increasing the number of wild tigers across India and South Asia. However, the situation across Russia, China, and South East Asia does not look quite optimistic and needs serious conservative efforts!


Wild cats, whether big or small need immediate conservation attention worldwide. But the situation of the big cats is far deplorable compared to the other global cat species. The cheetahs across Africa with Vulnerable conservation status have been seriously impacted by changes in the land use patterns and expansion of agriculture into virgin forested lands, habitat loss, and habitat fragmentation. Several decades back, the Asiatic cheetahs [Acinonyx jubatus venaticus (Griffith, 1821)] have been wiped out of their Asiatic habitats due to extensive hunting pressures and unrestricted poaching. Cheetahs became extinct in India around 1952. Today, only a handful of wild Asiatic cheetahs (possibly less than 100) are restricted to some specially protected habitats in eastern Iran only. An attempt to introduce Asiatic cheetahs into India from Iran and Asiatic lions from India into Iran through mutual conservation agreement was stalled due to local and regional inter and intra-government politics; losing out on a grand opportunity of expanding the habitats of two majestic big cats in the Asian continent through a Joint Conservation Initiative (JCI). The Critically Endangered Asiatic cheetahs are hanging on a delicate balance and are one of the top mammals that are threatened with virtual extinction over the next four to five decades. Only around 7000+ African cheetahs [Acinonyx jubatus (Schreber, 1775)] are left in the wild. They have been impacted by habitat loss due to the expansion of agricultural land and human encroachment into premier habitats. Human hunting pressure and serious ground competition from other African top predators like lions, leopards, and hyenas that often attack and kill the baby and juvenile cheetahs have also impacted their population dynamics


The Asiatic lion [Panthera Leo (Linnaeus, 1758)] that once ranged across west Asia and the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent is now restricted to one premier habitat of the Gir Sanctuary, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Habit loss and habitat fragmentation together with unprecedented hunting pressures across the Asian continent wiped out Asiatic lions except in India. The endangered Asiatic (Indian) lions have now survived imminent extinction through dedicated conservation measures over the past four decades and have reached a stable population of over 400 including adults, sub-adults, and juveniles. The situation of their Vulnerable status holder African cousin [Panthera leo (Linnaeus, 1758)] is also not too promising! They have disappeared over 90% of their historic range and only 20,000 are still roaming in the wild. Around 20,000 are now believed to be surviving across the African continent; being extinct in 26 countries including North Africa. They have been impacted by the loss of premier lion habitats, encroachment of forests by the human population expanding at an accelerated pace as well as poaching and over-exploitation by legalized trophy hunting by rich game hunters. Numerous dubious subspecies and genuine hybrids have been reported over time. Both the Asiatic and African subspecies need active conservation efforts to save them from the dangers of extinction.


Leopards [Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758)] inhabit the continents of Asia and Africa. The African leopard [Panthera pardus pardus (Linnaeus, 1758)] used to dominate all sub-Saharan ecosystems historically with occasional sightings reported from North Africa too. Today they have started becoming extinct in several countries in Africa and are increasingly difficult to locate in parts of their historic range and have earned the conservation status of being Vulnerable. Seven subspecies of Asiatic leopards are known across Asia; with the Indian leopard [Panthera pardus fusca

(Meyer, 1794)] been reported to inhabit diverse ecosystems across South Asia. Unfortunately rapid urbanization and expansion of agriculture, unplanned and unregulated infrastructural development, habitat loss, anthropogenic forest fires, poaching as well as human-animal conflicts have been wiping out different subspecies of Asiatic leopards in different pockets of Asia. However, comprehensive reliable data on leopard subpopulations across Africa and Asia is not available. India has recently initiated conducting regular leopard surveys in different premier leopard habitats.

Snow leopards

Snow leopards [Panthera uncia (Schreber, 1775)] survive in the high altitudes of the mountainous parts of Eurasia; stretching from Central Asia into Mongolia and China to the mountains of Afghanistan and the high Himalayan reaches of South Asia (Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bhutan). Two subspecies are currently recognized. The species is considered to be Vulnerable in its conservation status by IUCN, and only 4,500 to 10,000 individuals are believed to be currently surviving in the wild. However, comprehensive data on global snow leopard populations across their Eurasian range is extremely data deficient. The species have been impacted severely by detrimental anthropogenic pressures such as habitat loss and fragmentation, habitat encroachment, lack of suitable prey species, poaching, human-animal conflict, and climate change. Due to a shortage of prey the helpless animals often come down to lower elevations and predate on domestic cattle species for their survival; when they come into confrontation with remote mountain villagers, cattle ranchers, and migratory tribal herdsmen who rotate their livestock in the grassy pastures. The snow leopard like the normal leopards is shot indiscriminately or hunted or poached for saving livestock as well as their beautiful skins that fetch high process in the illegal wildlife black markets operating in parts of China and South East Asia. Both leopards [Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758)] and snow leopards [Panthera uncia (Schreber, 1775)] sharing two distinctly different ecosystems are also under the scanner and are becoming extinct in several parts of their historic ranges across Asia, Africa, and Eurasia.

Clouded leopard

Among other major wild cat species, the clouded leopard [Neofelis nebulosa (Griffith, 1821)] and the Sunda clouded leopard [Neofelis diardi (G. Cuvier, 1823)] from Asia sharing Vulnerable status are also worth mentioning. Both species are highly attractive, medium-sized cat species that live in tropical and sub-tropical as well as mountain forests of China, South and South East Asia. Both species have been impacted by rapid urbanization, deforestation, habitat loss, poaching due to wildlife trafficking, and illegal trade of live wildlife and wildlife body parts in some parts of Asia; the most elaborate being located in China. Overall, the plight of big wild cats across our planet is quite disheartening and distressing. Several of them are fighting near extinction and needs immediate long-term, comprehensive, sustainable conservation efforts to protect them from being lost forever in the not-so-distant future.

The species called clouded leopard remains quite neglected and not much talked about. The central stage for big cat conservation is mostly occupied by tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, pumas, and snow leopards. India is the only country in the world that houses all five majestic species (tiger, Asiatic lion, leopard, clouded leopard, and snow leopard) within her boundaries with exception of the cheetah which became extinct in 1951. The clouded leopard of the Malay archipelago is a separate species of a clouded leopard and is now recognized as the Sunda clouded leopard. The common clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulous) found in the Eastern Himalayas (Nepal, Bhutan, and India), China (south of Yangtze River), Bangladesh, and SE Asia (Myanmar and Thailand) is recognized by IUCN as vulnerable. There may be only a few thousand currently left in the wild. The animal is threatened in its natural habitat due to mostly anthropogenic pressures such as habitat destruction and fragmentation, poaching and illegal wildlife trade, forest fires, lack of available predatory species due to illegal human encroachments in their forest habitats, and forest disturbances caused by illegal encroachments and grazing inside the forests. The animal is grossly misunderstood and if it is caught predating poultry birds and other small domestic mammals and pets in the adjacent villages; they are battered to death by an unruly mob. The skin, bones, skull, and claws are prized as trophies in South and SE Asia, particularly in China. Young adults or babies are mercilessly collected from the forests for illegal pet industries catering to the new rich elites in various Asian countries such as China and SE Asia where few of the world’s largest underground wildlife markets operate with billions of dollars in annual turnover.

Pumas and jaguars

The pumas or cougars or mountain lions [Puma concolor (Linnaeus, 1771)] across North and South Americas; and the jaguars [Panthera onca (Linnaeus, 1758)] in Central and South America have been equally pushed hard for their virtual existence. Both species have been impacted by exploitation such as recreational hunting and poaching as well as monumental habitat loss. According to the WWF 2018, World Wildlife Day poster around 18,000 jaguar skins has been sold per annum in the middle of the 20th century. The anthropogenic pressure combined with the rapid loss of forests and habitats together with widespread poaching has pushed this species towards Near Threatened status over the past century. Pumas are now restricted only to 50% of their historic range in South America. The welcome news regarding the pumas is that they are still being considered to be the Least Concern species with six extant subspecies of which five are restricted to Latin American countries.

The lucrative wildlife trade industry is causing the slow move towards extinction for many fascinating species across the world including the majestic clouded leopards. Very little is known regarding the clouded leopard behavior, breeding, foraging, and hunting strategies. To the best of my knowledge, there is no captive breeding program in operation in Asia with some attempts being made in some EU nations and USA very recently. Relocation and reintroduction of clouded leopards accidentally recovered from illegal wildlife trade, pet industry or poachers are currently not in practice either. The majestic species need our care and support for conservation in their natural habitats. Till then their future looks quite doom over the next two to three decades.

.    .    .