A problem for wild cats, both big and small

A problem for wild cats, both big and small

  • Millions of snares dot the forests and protected areas of Southeast Asia, set to feed the illegal wildlife trade and wild game demand, where they sweep up multiple species, including threatened wild cats; in Africa, snaring for subsistence hunting causes a similar problem.
  • Snares are noose-like traps that can be designed to target certain groups, such as types of ungulates, while others may sweep up many more. Crafted from a variety of materials, such as wire, cable, rope or nylon, these low-tech and cheap devices are set to catch animals by either the neck, foot or torso.
  • Snares have played a part in wiping out big cat populations from places such as Vietnam and Laos, but they also impact small cat species, such as the fishing cat, Asiatic and African golden cats, and clouded leopards.
  • Conservationists say solutions to snaring must work at different levels to tackle drivers, which vary depending on the region. This includes working with communities and reducing demand for wild game.

In 2019, researchers declared the Indochinese tiger extinct in Laos as widespread snaring in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park picked off the last few individuals of Panthera tigris corbetti. Two years later, scientists found that smaller cat species, such as the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), were also in decline in the park. It was thought that in the absence of larger predators, smaller cat populations would boom, but this wasn’t the reality on the ground.

“We didn’t see that in the data. We saw their numbers going down too,” says Jan Kamler, with the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. “I think, generally, snaring is the greatest threat to felids in Southeast Asia, more than habitat loss … in some places like Laos and Cambodia that still have habitat, it’s the snaring that has driven them out of these areas.”

Other conservationists say that human-wildlife conflict, persecution and habitat degradation are likely more important factors, especially for the smaller cat species.

Across the border in Vietnam, snaring has already wiped out many felid populations, according to researchers. Aside from a solitary sighting of a marbled cat in 2019 on the border with Laos, only leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis), which may be too small and light to trigger widely used foot snares, remain in the country.

“Snaring has basically decimated the wild cat community [in Vietnam],” says Andrew Tilker, species conservation coordinator with Re:wild, an NGO. He says it has played a major role in the extirpation of clouded leopards, Asiatic golden cats (Catopuma temminckii), tigers and leopards (Panthera pardus).

Kamler fears that other countries, specifically Laos and Cambodia, will soon follow the same path. Both nations have lost all of their tigers and leopards.

“I suspect in the future the same is going to be true for clouded leopards, Asiatic golden cats and probably marbled cats too, if snaring continues,” Kamler says.

Snaring has driven the extirpation of the Indochinese tiger in countries such as Laos. Snaring threatens a host of other wildlife, including smaller felids, say researchers. Image courtesy of Sander van der Wel via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
A park ranger dismantling a snare.
A park ranger dismantling a snare in Hue Saola Nature Reserve, Vietnam. Increasing site security, utilizing SMART patrols, and removing snares are all part of the solutions to snaring, say experts. Fundamentally, however, the underlying drivers of poaching and demand for illegal wildlife products and bushmeat must be addressed. This requires working with communities. Image courtesy of Milo Putnam / re:wild.

From big to small cats

The snaring crisis in Southeast Asia is a major conservation threat to big cats and a host of other wildlife species. The demise of tigers and leopards from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam is emblematic of a wider problem. A briefing paper by WWF and wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC published last year documented snares killing at least 387 big cats across seven Asian countries between 2012 and 2021, the majority of cases occurring outside protected areas and hitting tiger and leopard populations particularly hard.

Another wide-ranging report by WWF estimated that hunters have set around 13 million snares in protected areas across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. A single hunter can set hundreds of these low-tech killers in one go.

The main driver of snaring in Southeast Asia is the demand for wild game in urban areas, not subsistence hunting, says Kamler. Smaller felids are rarely targets, but the indiscriminate nature of these traps can sweep up multiple species. Where big cats are directly targeted, they’re done so for traditional medicine and body parts.

Vanessa Herranz Muñoz, director of the Cambodian Fishing Cat Project, agrees with Kamler, calling snaring the “greatest threat to the survival of fishing cats [Prionailurus viverrinus] and other small cats in Southeast Asia, and particularly in Cambodia.”

Herranz Muñoz says that even areas once deemed “safer,” such as remote and inaccessible wetlands, are starting to get hit.

“Last year we even found a dead fishing cat with signs of snaring in a remote mangrove area,” she wrote in an email.

Wai-Ming Wong, director of small cats at global conservation NGO Panthera, agrees that snaring is a significant issue facing some wild cats. In his view, however, its severity depends on the region and the specific species in question. In general, he says, habitat loss and persecution are likely greater threats to many smaller species. In most cases, he adds, smaller cats aren’t being targeted by hunters, but are killed incidentally or as bycatch. By contrast, bigger cats like tigers are specific targets for the illegal wildlife trade.

Muntjac in a camera trap.
According to conservationist Vanessa Hernanz Munoz, snaring is the greatest threat facing fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) in Cambodia. “Injured animals such as muntjacs missing a foot or smooth-coated otters missing a hand are appearing more and more often in our cameras,” she wrote. Image courtesy of Vanessa Hernanz Munoz / Cambodian Fishing Cat Project.

Snaring in Africa

In Africa, snaring is predominantly driven by subsistence hunting, according to experts, though the result for wild cats is similar. Conservationists view snaring as one of the greatest threats to African lions (Panthera leo). It also impacts other species such as leopards and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus).

“The technology of a snare is very simple. It’s like tying your shoelace,” says Tutilo Mudumba, a researcher with Makerere University in Uganda. “We have lions with groin injuries, we have those that have been caught around the neck. The majority tend to lose limbs.”

As well as claiming the lives of individual lions and reducing their prey, snare deaths can also disrupt pride dynamics with potentially dire conservation consequences, according to Mudumba. Injured males at the head of prides can become sudden targets, and as lions practice infanticide, a change in the top male can mean the death of cubs.

“That tendency tends to push back the population from growing, especially if there is a high male turnover,” Mudumba explains. “The impact of snares can reverberate through the entire pride.”

Snare around a lion's waist.
Snaring is also a threat to African lions which can impact entire prides, says Tutilo Mudumba, hindering population growth. Image courtesy of Tutilo Mudumba / Snares to Wares.

A study in Tanzania’s Serengeti echoed this, indicating that sub-lethal injuries also impact the reproduction of other carnivores such as spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta).

Similarly, the African golden cat (Caracal aurata), an elusive small cat species, is particularly sensitive to snaring, according to Badru Mugerwa with the Ugandan conservation NGO Embaka. African golden cats are big enough to be caught in traps set for wild ungulates, but small enough that they can’t extricate themselves from the traps.

In 2019, a survey of three protected areas in Uganda resulted in an estimate of 81 African golden cats killed by snares, 71 of those as a result of bycatch, Mugerwa says. It’s likely an underestimate of the true numbers, he adds.

Conservationists also underline that human-wildlife conflict can exacerbate snaring of carnivore species like wild felids.

An African golden cat caught in a snare.
An African golden cat caught in a snare. Driven by demand for bushmeat, snaring can impact wild cats – both big and small – in Africa. In 2019, conservationists Mugerwa estimated that over 80 African golden cats were killed in just three protected areas in Uganda. Image courtesy of Badru Mugerwa / Embaka.

Stemming the snaring tide

There’s no silver bullet for snaring, say conservationists, but the crisis must be tackled from a number of different angles — social, environmental and legal — to avoid the demise of felids, both big and small.

The most impactful approaches are likely to be those that analyze the problem and develop solutions to “address the motivations for hunting using snares, as well as improving criminal justice systems,” Tilker and other experts wrote in a report in 2021.

Fostering community guardianship of protected areas is one potential approach. Tilker says it has shown some success in keeping hunters from setting snares in Vietnam’s Pu Mat National Park.

It’s a model that Herranz Muñoz agrees is needed on a wider scale: “I believe communities living within Protected Areas should receive direct and sustained economic support to ensure good living standards, conservation-aware livelihoods and get to lead conservation activities as ecosystem guardians.”

Snares must also be removed to the extent possible, experts say, as part of stronger protection of national parks. Panthera’s Wong emphasizes the need for “site security” by using systems such as SMART patrols and engaging with local communities.

Priya Singh, an independent researcher in India, says she has personally removed hundreds of snares from study sites in northeast India, recognizing them as “amongst the toughest challenges for park managers.” She says dismantling snares and patrolling protected areas must come with awareness, alternatives to wild game, predator-proof shelters for livestock, and livelihood-generating programs. These “could help reduce snaring to some extent,” she wrote.

Fundamentally, however, experts emphasize the need to reduce demand for wild game and traditional medicine, particularly in Southeast Asia.

“As long as there’s demand there will be people who exploit that,” Tilker explains. “So that’s a big piece of what needs to change.”

Snares collected in Hue Saola Nature Reserve, Vietnam.
Snares collected in Hue Saola Nature Reserve, Vietnam. It is estimated that millions of snares are scattered across Southeast Asian forests, sweeping up a broad range of wildlife. Image courtesy of Milo Putnam / re:wild.

Tackling the root

In Uganda, conservationists are employing solutions to address the underlying drivers of wild game consumption. Tutilo Mudumba, for example, runs an initiative called Snares to Wares, which supports local communities living near Murchison Falls National Park to develop artisanal skills by turning snares into artwork for sale.

Offering alternative livelihoods is a crucial step, he says, as it’s enabled some participants to open their own workshops. But Mudumba says he also hopes to reduce access to the materials used to craft snares.

Research shows that snares used in Murchison Falls National Park are often made using wire from abandoned tires. By working with companies and truck drivers to limit the number of tires dumped at roadsides, Mudumba says he hopes to limit the material required to make them meaning fewer snares set.

He’s currently in the early stages of partnering with drivers and service stations so that tires are left with his team, he explains. Though it won’t end snaring, Mudumba says limiting access to at least one major source of materials could help stem the problem.

Another project in Uganda, led by Mugerwa’s organization, Embaka, supports communities living near protected areas to incentivize reductions in poaching.

“From our interactions over the years, we have learned that the key reasons as to why people participate in bushmeat hunting is poverty and the desperate need for food and income,” he says.

A lion sculpture made out of snares.
The Snares to Wares project in Uganda supports local community members learn artisanal skills, utilizing materials gathered from recovered snares. Mudumba, director of the program, explains that the model can be expanded and targeted at local peoples’ cultural norms. “Our records show none of the over 600 artisans we work with have ever been involved in any poaching after starting to work with us,” he said. Image courtesy of Tutilo Mudumba / Snares to Wares.
Pigs in a farm.
Tackling the underlying drivers of subsistence bushmeat hunting in Africa is key to addressing the challenge, say conservationists. Livestock seed banks, whereby families reliant on hunting are provided with pigs on the condition that the first female offspring is donated to another family, are one such approach, says Mugerwa. Image courtesy of Badru Mugerwa / Embaka.

Initiatives to address this include livestock seed banks, anti-poaching watch groups, and village banks akin to savings and loans schemes.

“These initiatives are being suggested, designed and implemented by the local communities themselves,” Mugerwa says.

He and his partner, Hazel Sumila, a trained dentist, also combined forces to bring free dental care to communities that lack access to basic services and health care, which they call “Smiles for Conservation.” Uniting conservation and dentistry, they say, offers an incentive for local people to stop poaching. So far, the program has benefited more than 400 community members.

“We deliver this service with a message that it is coming to you because of the existence of the African golden cat,” Mugerwa says. “It’s all about delivering incentives to local communities who have supported community-based initiatives against bushmeat hunting.”

The model has expanded beyond Uganda to other African golden cat range countries, such as South Sudan and Cameroon. So far, Mugerwa says, this broad approach is showing positive results: some hunters in local communities have given up poaching. Mudumba also plans to expand the Snares to Wares model.

“Local solutions work and they should be recognized wherever they are in conservation,” Mudumba says. “Having spaces where locals can access, and also feel empowered to actually propose solutions is very important.”

Banner image: A clouded leopard. Scientists found that smaller cat species, such as the clouded leopard and marbled cat, were also in decline in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park, Laos. Image by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Snares: Low-tech, low-profile killers of rare wildlife the world over


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