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The importance of large carnivores

A leopard in Africa.
[Image courtesy of Kirstin Abley]

In the classic film, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her frightened companions begin chanting, "Lions and tigers and bears—oh my!" And, to be sure, carnivores like those have scared people (and other animals) for centuries. But, in a Review article in Science this week, William Ripple and colleagues highlight some of the benefits that these top carnivores bestow on ecosystems around the world—and they say that the time to conserve these meat-eating species is now.

Ripple and the other authors analyzed recent studies to explore the ecological importance of the 31 largest mammalian carnivores in the world. They discovered many examples of these top carnivores—lions, leopards, pumas, wolves, dingoes and others—keeping ecosystems in balance through both direct and indirect effects.

Sure, these predators eat other animals. But, they also enhance the diversity of species in their ecosystems, slow down the effects of climate change on their habitats and control disease within their food chains, according to the authors. Gray wolves, for example, which are currently being targeted by hunters in the Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes region of the United States, provide a number of positive effects on their ecosystems by keeping populations of herbivores in check and, in turn, allowing woody plants to thrive and soak up lots of carbon.

Ripple and his colleagues were even able to identify things like crop damage and changes to bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile populations that were caused by disrupting large carnivore populations near the top of their food webs. Their review of recent data shows that the role of carnivores is far more complex than researchers have recognized—and that conservationists need to come up with ways for humans and carnivores to co-exist before it's too late.