As predator species, small carnivores play a crucial role in the various ecosystems that they occupy, upon which we depend on for our own existence – so protecting small carnivores not only benefits them, but us as well. But regardless of their usefulness to humans or ecosystems, all small carnivore species have an inherent right to live and survive, and making people more aware about small carnivores and the threats that they face will greatly help in preserving them for future generations. It is quite sobering to learn how little we know about some small carnivores; for instance, western scientists only discovered the Liberian mongoose in 1958.
The global organisation, IUCN, regularly publishes assessments of the conservation status of animal and plant species on their Red List website. Although it would appear that many small carnivores are not threatened with extinction, the conservation status of many species is currently very difficult to assess with any certainty, as too little is known about their distributions, population numbers, and the precise impacts of any threats; wildlife experts have to largely speculate about what is actually happening in the wild in order to assess their extinction risk. In fact, one of biggest problems for small carnivore conservation is our lack of knowledge of their natural history and ecology, which highlights that more field studies on these species are urgently needed – so any students and field researchers reading this and looking for ideas for new projects, please take note! (see Research)
One of the major threats that small carnivores face is the destruction of their habitat. Many natural habitats are fast disappearing due to the expansion of agricultural land, cities, towns and villages, logging and mining activities, and road building. Forest-dependent small carnivore species are particularly threatened – up to 90% of coastal rainforests in West Africa have disappeared since 1900, and about 88% of Asian rainforests have been lost. Many small carnivore species have restricted ranges and specific habitat requirements, and only a few can live close to towns and villages and tolerate minor destruction of their natural habitats, which makes them very vulnerable to human-induced environmental changes, as well as other activities, such as hunting.
Small carnivore species that need forests in which to live will disappear if all the trees in an area are cut down. But even if some wooded patches are left intact, the breaking up of large forests into smaller fragments can still have harmful impacts. Forest fragmentation divides a species’ population into smaller units, which have a higher risk of going extinct – an outbreak of disease, or a forest fire, can more easily wipe out small, isolated populations. If a small carnivore species is unable to cross open areas between forest patches, this will restrict the dispersal of individuals between populations, resulting in a higher level of inbreeding that can lead to harmful consequences. And the network of roads that are created within a logged forest allows greater access to hunters, which leads to increases in hunting pressure. To counter the loss of forest habitat, remaining woodlands must be protected and conserved, and forested corridors connecting existing forest patches need to be maintained. However, it is unlikely that all forests will be granted a fully-protected status, and logging activities will continue in commercial forests, so the management of non-protected areas needs to incorporate the requirements of small carnivores.
Some small carnivores are found in wetland areas and along the banks of rivers and streams. These species are highly vulnerable to the drainage of swamps and marshes, and the pollution of watercourses, and could be severely impacted unless these water bodies are protected, or at least maintained in way that minimises any harmful effects.
Hunting, wildlife trade and persecution
Small carnivore species are hunted for their fur, for food, and to supply the huge illegal wildlife trade, which has been estimated between US$10 and 20 billion per year. Although this trade is global, it is most acute across Asia. Wildlife traders penetrate into the remotest areas and actively encourage the hunting of species for which there is a demand. Animals are killed using various means, including guns and snares, and since many types of traps are unselective in what they catch, non-targeted animals are also taken and killed. Plantation and forest workers may supplement their income by opportunistically catching animals to sell in local markets or to wildlife dealers, and hunters may specifically target animals that are in high demand. Most of this wildlife trade is illegal, but local and international wildlife laws are usually ignored, or not enforced. There is a large demand and trade in wildlife throughout Asia, and many animals are exported by sea and air to other global destinations.
Several small carnivore species are also a source of meat (called ‘bushmeat’) for local communities across Africa and Asia. The amount of bushmeat eaten by some African communities is quite substantial, particularly where the breeding of domestic animals is problematic because of diseases and parasites; for instance, in Ghana, bushmeat can make up 62% of the animal protein that is eaten, with small carnivores making up to 15% of all the bushmeat consumed in some local communities. Across Asia, humans have been hunting wildlife in tropical forests for food and traditional medicines for over 40,000 years, but over the last hundred or so years, there have been significant advancements in hunting methods (such as the use of guns), and a huge explosion in demand for wildlife products. While bushmeat was once consumed primarily by poor and rural communities, it is increasingly finding its way into more affluent urban centres, particularly in countries such as China. And Asian ‘wet’ markets have been identified as sources of human disease outbreaks. Wildlife harvesting has now reached unsustainable levels due to a burgeoning human population and shrinking forests, and commercial poaching to supply the ever growing illegal wildlife trade is now a major threat to local biodiversity, including small carnivores.
Some small carnivore species are taken from the wild and kept as pets, either as companions, or to protect houses from dangerous animals, such as snakes, and to reduce mice and rat populations. Obviously, it is not recommended that anyone should keep a wild animal as a pet; in doing so, this would fuel the rampant illegal wildlife trade and encourage local hunters to trap animals, leading to the needless suffering and deaths of many individuals – for every animal trapped and transported, many more die in the process – as well as causing further declines in wildlife populations in the wild. It is infinitely better to admire and marvel at small carnivores in their natural habitat than keep one in your home, and there are many domestic animals that would make more suitable pets.
A few small carnivore species prey opportunistically on domestic poultry, and many are killed by local people if it is believed that this will reduce losses. Small carnivores are also persecuted because of their possible role in the spread of rabies and other diseases, although vaccinating them in the wild could be a better alternative option to killing them.
Climate changes can alter the distribution of weather patterns and global temperatures, and these may last from decades to millions of years. Many of these changes have natural causes, and they can have many profound impacts – the recent ice ages is one well known example – that may result in changes in the sea level and the distribution and coverage of vegetation, such as forests. Animals respond to these changes in one of three ways: they can either adapt to the new local conditions, disperse to where their native habitat has shifted, or go extinct.
There is now compelling evidence that humans are causing climate changes, and this is happening at such an unprecedented rate and scale that most animals, including small carnivores, may not able to adapt rapidly enough, or may be prevented from dispersing to where remaining areas of their preferred habitat still exists. The consequence of human-caused climate changes is that extinctions are happening at far higher levels than ever previously experienced in the history of life on earth, which is not only causing a massive loss in biodiversity, but threatens human existence as well.
What can be done
The limited information we have about the natural history and ecology of most small carnivores makes it very difficult to formulate good conservation strategies, so one of the most important actions that can be done to help preserve them is to undertake scientific studies, and hopefully more field biologists will focus their research efforts on small carnivores across the world.
Since the loss of natural habitats is one of the major threats to small carnivores, habitat preservation is crucial for their long-term survival. Many national parks and reserves have already been set aside for wildlife; however, the total area of protected land is currently only about 10-15% of the world’s land surface area. Most protected areas are probably too small in themselves to support carnivore populations, and are often surrounded by human-created habitats, such as farmland and plantations, which are hostile to most small carnivores and may also prevent them from dispersing from one favourable area to another. So although we should strive as much as possible to preserve new areas for small carnivores (and other wildlife), it is unlikely that we will be able to protect sufficient land for all species. This means that the way non-protected land is managed will also have a crucial impact. For instance, making agricultural land more wildlife-friendly, or at the very least more amenable as a travel corridor from one favourable habitat to another, will play a crucial role in conserving small carnivores in rural landscapes.
Human-caused climate changes will compound this situation. Global changes in temperatures and rainfall patterns will likely cause the existing distribution of habitats to shift, and some small carnivores may go extinct if they cannot adapt to these rapid changes, or are not able to move to new areas. Many non-government organisations (NGOs), both at the local and global level, are now working hard to preserve habitats and to protect wildlife, including small carnivores.
We know that some small carnivore species are hunted for bushmeat, for their fur, or to be kept as pets. Education and public persuasion are key tools for stopping people from taking small carnivores from the wild, and to combat these threats, we need to raise awareness about these issues, encourage alternative practises, and implement and enforce effective laws and regulations.
The captive breeding of animals is often promoted as a conservation tool, especially for species on the brink of extinction, and zoos have increasingly became more focused on presenting exhibits that educate the general public. Some zoos also support in-situ research and conservation programmes by providing funds and expertise for field projects on threatened or poorly known species. However, many critics and animal rights activists consider that zoos are immoral and serve only to fulfil human leisure desires, at the expense of the animals. Keeping animals in captivity also raises many ethical and welfare issues, especially in poorly managed zoos, and many conservationists argue that captive breeding should be seen as supporting, not substituting, conservation efforts in the wild, and perhaps should only be used as a last effort to save a species.
How you can help to save small carnivores
There are many ways you can help to preserve small carnivores for future generations and here a few suggested examples:
- Devote some of your free time to help raise awareness about small carnivores, and the conservation issues that they face, through using social media and dedicated websites.
- Campaign for more effective legislation and actions that will protect small carnivores from hunting and wildlife trafficking, and preserve their habitats.
- You can make good shopping choices that will have powerful knock on effects for the benefit of small carnivores (and other wildlife). We are all consumers and the decisions on what we buy each time we go shopping can ultimately have profound impacts for the environment. For instance, you should only buy wooden products that are made from trees grown in sustainably managed forests, and avoid those containing exotic woods taken from tropical rainforests. You should also boycott products containing palm oil to discourage the expansion of oil palm plantations, one of the major causes of deforestation in tropical regions.
- You could go into the field to study them. There are tremendous research opportunities for anyone who is a field scientist to study the ecology of small carnivores in the wild. But if you are not a professional biologist, you could volunteer on a field project that is studying small carnivores (see Research).
- Support NGOs and field research projects that are either directly focused on small carnivores, or are striving to protect the habitat in which they live. Many of these have online websites that can be easily found by searching the Internet.