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To restore large carnivore populations, make people wealthier, study finds

A Bengal tiger.

There are more cases of big cats preying on livestock in Bhutan now than ever before. Image by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz via Pexels (Public domain).

  • Encouraging sustainable social and economic development is the best way to prevent the extinction of carnivores such as lynx, bears and lions, according to a new study.
  • Researchers found that social and economic factors, such as people’s quality of life, were more closely associated with declines of these species than purely environmental features like habitat loss or climate change. As people become wealthier, they are more likely to tolerate large carnivores.
  • A key example is western Europe, where populations of grey wolves have increased by 1,800% since the 1960s due to better quality of life for people and slower economic growth on the continent.
  • Rapid economic development often comes at the expense of other species, so advanced economies may need to provide financial assistance to help prevent these species from going extinct.

The decline of big carnivore populations like lions, bears and lynx is most closely associated with rapid economic growth, according to a study published this week in Nature Communications.

The study looked at 50 species of large carnivores worldwide over the past 50 years and found that social and economic factors, like people’s quality of life, are more closely linked to declines of these species than just environmental factors like habitat loss and climate change.

“The decline of large carnivores is stark. Lions and tigers are already absent from more than 90% of their historic range,” Thomas Johnson, from the University of Sheffield who led the study while based at the University of Reading, said in a press release. “At home, many of the UK carnivore species, such as lynx, wolf and bear have already been hunted into extinction.”

According to Johnson, some carnivores are killed for their meat or for the wildlife trade, while others, like lions, may be murdered if they endanger a person’s life or way of life, such as their cattle.

“In the midst of rapid development, people appear to become less tolerant of carnivores, conflicts explode, and we suspect that incidences of poaching and persecution rocket,” Johnson said.

As people become wealthier, they are more likely to tolerate big cats and other carnivores. So, encouraging a sustainable model of social and economic development, rather than focusing only on issues like climate change, is the best way to save carnivores, the study suggested.

The study also looked at how changes to social and economic systems could promote the recovery of carnivores. While rapid economic development can push species to extinction, it also improves the quality of life for humans.

However, the study suggested that once people achieve a high quality of life and economic development slows, there is an opportunity for persecuted species to recover. This recovery is partly due to improved habitat protection in advanced economies and a better relationship between people and carnivores. Animals once considered a threat or a pest are now recognized as important parts of culture and ecosystems.

A resting gray wolf (Canis lupus). Photo by Gary Kramer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A key example is western Europe, where populations of grey wolves have increased by 1,800% since the 1960s due to better quality of life for people and slower economic growth on the continent. Johnson noted brown bear and lynx populations in Europe have also started to recover, as have tiger populations in India.

“This gives us hope that we can restore our lost ecosystems and we could one day see lost carnivores return to British shores,” Johnson said. “But we also need to think about how we can save wildlife in countries currently experiencing rapid growth, where species extinctions are likely.”

Johnson proposed that wealthier countries, which are largely to blame for the decline of large carnivores, could assist less developed countries by providing them with targeted financial aid. This might entail providing communities in biodiversity hotspots with a fair wage while also fostering conservation.

“Our results suggest that a slower, more sustainable economic model can protect carnivore populations, but this also risks locking people into poverty for longer. We urgently need to develop solutions that can support both biodiversity and people, and perhaps the world’s advanced economies need to offer more financial aid to protect our global biodiversity,” Johnson said.

“My real hope,” Johnson told Agence France-Presse, “is [that] we start thinking about this as a socioeconomic problem, as well as an environmental problem.”


Johnson, T.F., Isaac, N.J.B., Paviolo, A. et al. Socioeconomic factors predict population changes of large carnivores better than climate change or habitat loss. Nat Commun 14, 74 (2023).  Doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-35665-9

Banner image of a tiger by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz via Pexels (Public domain).

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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