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Habitat Loss

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One of the major problems facing animals in the Sixth Extinction is habitat loss. Animals with formerly large ranges see them shrink and shrink and the large ones or the migratory ones just can’t live anymore. Such as the spotted leopard.

There was a time when spotted leopards could really stretch out. They roamed 13.5 million square miles of habitat in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which were full of prey that provided plenty of food.

But a study announced Wednesday by National Geographic says that has changed dramatically. The big cat’s territory in those areas has shrunk 75 percent, to just 3.3 million square miles, and stands to shrink even more because of booming human populations, along with farming and other development to feed and house them.

The finding of a greatly diminished habitat is giving rise to the fear that the iconic cats, so stealthy that they are nearly invisible in the animal kingdom, are vanishing for real. Until now, the prevailing wisdom has been that leopard populations were doing fine and aren’t considered candidates for protection as threatened or endangered.

The lack of visibility was attributed to the leopard’s famous stealth. Unlike other big cats, researchers rarely try to estimate spotted leopard populations because they can’t find enough for a reliable count. But Andrew Jacobson went in a different direction to assess whether the animals were under threat for a study published Monday in the journal Peer J.

Look at the above photo, which comes from the linked story. This is a national park with a housing development on the edge of it. Now, national parks in the U.S. are not the norm, but still, if you are creating a national park to save habitat (or if that’s part of the reason) but you don’t have a buffer zone, it’s just not going to work. It is actually possible to stop this habitat loss, as well as poaching and other factors that threaten extinction but it takes real government effort. In this case, it really is a matter of government willpower, as we saw in the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century, where wildlife agents in Florida were getting shot by bird poachers and where the Army occupied Yellowstone to stop bison poaching. There’s a downside to this sort of thing too–it often means that long-standing land rights and hunting traditions are made illegal. But ultimately it’s a question of whether governments care enough to stop these threats and whether those governments are even capable of doing so. In much of Asia and Africa, they don’t really have the resources and endless masses of impoverished people who want land or who need money bad enough to poach. So these problems are very, very difficult, but not outright impossible.

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