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.
Large carnivores also help regulate ecosystem services, such as carbon storage, erosion control, and water quality. By keeping herbivores in check, they allow plants – which absorb and store carbon dioxide – to flourish. For example, the flooding of an important carnivore habitat to create the Lake Guri reservoir in Venezuela led to the creation of a host of very small islands. This fragmented the habitat of jaguars, pumas and lesser predators, leading to their eventual local extinction. As a result, the density of rodents, howler monkeys, iguanas, and leaf-cutter ants shot up, leading to severe reductions in the densities of tree seedlings and saplings, so that the area now stores less carbon dioxide than before.
In northern North America, wolves control moose populations. As moose have a healthy appetite for tree saplings, controlling their numbers results in more trees, increased carbon absorption and increased net productivity, all of which helps mitigate climate change. By preying on the herbivores that interfere with stream bank vegetation, large carnivores also indirectly help reduce erosion and improve water quality.
Large carnivores are also important for oceans. For example, sea otters feast on sea urchins. When they don’t, more sea urchins eat more kelp, a large underwater plant that dampens coastal waves and currents and reduces coastal erosion. Kelp also absorbs and stores carbon. Restoring sea otter populations in North America to keep sea urchins in check could result in an estimated 4.4 million to 8.7 million tons of carbon stored in kelp forests.
Of course none of these examples imply that large carnivores don’t also carry costs. They do, sometimes in the form of lost livestock or human lives. But this happens less often than believed. Think sharks, for example, which were involved in 116 recorded attacks in 2013, 13 of which were fatal. In the same period of time, almost 100 million sharks were killed, mostly for their fins, resulting in the loss of a vitally important predator that underpins ocean health and productivity.
The elimination of these animals represents one of the most significant anthropogenic impacts on nature. To put it simply, we need to prevent the extinction of large carnivores because in the end, everything is connected.
So what are we to do? Like any complex policy issue, this problem requires a web of responses. When isolated, any of these elements are likely to fail but an integrated approach can make a difference:
- To deal with habitat fragmentation, we need to adopt landscape approaches to planning in which the economic, social and ecosystem functions of a landscape are weighed and balanced.
- Conservation concerns need to be integrated into infrastructure planning, which is another contributor to habitat fragmentation.
- As demand for agricultural products rises, farming systems need to be made more efficient to limit conversion of natural habitats to farmland.
- Many large carnivores are under threat from poachers. We need to get a handle on the flourishing illegal wildlife trade.
- As carnivores are protected and/or reinstated, human-wildlife conflict must be properly managed to minimize any negative impacts on humans.
None of these processes are easy. But recognizing the importance of functioning ecosystems beyond their intrinsic value can help us understand the imperative to act. The result will be better balanced, more resilient landscapes, which are ultimately beneficial to humans. Such landscapes can help achieve the World Bank’s twin goals of sustainably eliminating extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.