It may seem like a silly question. And of course I’m not proposing that we stock schools with bears and lions – that would probably keep students away. Nor am I suggesting that saving lions will solve the undersupply of education in developing countries. Rather, I am making a broader point about the links between different parts of ecosystems, which often have an indirect but underappreciated bearing on human development.
Habitat conversion and fragmentation, depletion of prey, and hunting have in many parts of the world reduced the ranges of wolves, lions, bears, tigers, sea otters, and other large carnivores to less than half of their original range. When their numbers nosedive, we not only lose iconic species. Ecosystems also lose the keystone species that eat smaller carnivores and herbivores. When fewer animals down the food chain get eaten, ecosystems change – and those changes affect us humans too. A recent article in Science Magazine casts a systematic light on the issue, and its lessons are important for development.
On land, large carnivores can help ensure functioning ecosystems. Consider the case of West Africa, where lions and leopard populations have dropped precipitously. Both species hunt olive baboons, which in turn like to eat the small antelopes, livestock, and food crops that humans also consume. Fewer lions and leopards have resulted in more baboons and more competition for food with humans. In some areas, baboon raids on fields have even forced families to keep children home from school so that they can protect the family crops. Also, since carnivores often go after sick prey, they reduce the prevalence of disease in their prey population. This can limit disease spillover between wild and domesticated animals, as well as cut related pastoralism and animal husbandry costs.