Large carnivore species and populations have different levels of ecological resilience to human-caused habitat fragmentation (Purvis et al. 2001, Woodroffe 2001, Crooks 2002).
Human–carnivore conflict implication
Effective legal protection and the reduction of human-caused mortality is a priority for large carnivore populations with low ecological resilience.
Ecological resilience is influenced by biological traits such as body size, resource specialization, social structure, fecundity and behaviour (Purvis et al. 2001, Crooks 2002). The strongest influence, though, is human persecution, which impacts carnivore populations (Linnell et al. 2001, Woodroffe 2001, Gusset et al. 2008a).
The two species of large African carnivores that appear to have the lowest resilience to human-caused habitat fragmentation are African wild dogs and lions. Wild dogs have a highly specialized social structure with cooperative breeding (Creel et al. 2007). They also are highly visible as diurnal pack hunters that, in most populations, specialize on medium-sized prey (Hayward & Kerley 2008). Interspecific competition, especially inside protected areas, combined with human conflicts, lead to precipitous declines of their populations and keep African wild dogs throughout their range at very low densities in shrinking, isolated groups that are highly prone to local extinctions (Creel et al. 2007). Wild dogs are habitat generalists that can move over vast distances between resources, tend to avoid human habitations and can subsist on small prey (Woodroffe et al. 2007b). Therefore, farmlands have a high potential as conservation areas for them and may provide vital corridors (Woodroffe 2010).
Conversely, lions are hunter-scavengers, have a high population growth rate compared with other large carnivores and can persist in relatively small areas (Druce et al. 2004, Kettles & Slotow 2009). Yet, they are the least successful large carnivore outside conservation areas (Woodroffe 2001), and their densities decrease with distance from conservation areas (Ogutu et al. 2005, Schiess-Meier et al. 2007). This is mainly because the lion is the carnivore that kills most people in Africa (Sillero-Zubiri & Laurenson 2001) and, in many areas, the principal predator of large livestock (Anonymous 2006), resulting in nearly ubiquitous lethal human–lion conflict (Frank et al. 2006). Even in Masailand in East Africa, which is home to the largest contiguous lion population in Africa, lions outside protected areas are in imminent danger of being extirpated by pastoralists (Anonymous 2006, Frank et al. 2006). Consequently, survival of lion populations is increasingly dependent on conservation areas (Woodroffe 2001).
Cheetahs, like African wild dogs, are threatened by low population densities, interspecific competition and conflict with people (Anonymous 2007). Their ecological resilience, however, is increased by traits such as their mostly solitary behaviour, high mobility, habitat flexibility (Bissett & Bernard 2007), diverse prey base (Hayward et al. 2006b) and ability to reproduce rapidly from an early age (Kelly et al. 1998). In Namibia and Botswana, where the largest continuous cheetah population in Africa occurs, more cheetahs persist on farmlands than inside protected areas (Klein 2007, Marker et al. 2007). Nevertheless, conflict with farmers remains the biggest threat to cheetahs throughout their range (Purchase et al. 2007), and training farmers in integrated livestock–wildlife management practices combined with non-lethal conflict mitigation is crucial to cheetah conservation (Marker et al. 2008).
Leopards and spotted hyaenas have high ecological resilience and occur widely in human-altered landscapes: they are predominantly nocturnal with broad diet ranges and exhibit great behavioural flexibility that enables them to hunt or scavenge individually and to alter their behavioural response to human activity (Boydston et al. 2003, Hayward 2006, Hayward et al. 2006a, Kolowski et al. 2007).
Brown hyaenas generally seem to benefit, at least to some extent, from living in proximity to people and continue to occur in stable viable populations throughout southern Africa (Maude & Mills 2005). They are predominantly scavengers with a wide-ranging diet (Mills & Hofer 1998), and livestock carcasses can form a reliable and abundant food source in agricultural areas (Maude & Mills 2005). Since brown hyaenas are almost entirely nocturnal, very secretive, rarely vocalize and are usually difficult to find, persecution by people has little effect on their overall population size (Mills 1990). Educating farmers about the foraging behaviour of brown hyaenas is important, to change their perception of the threat that brown hyaenas pose to livestock and to minimize conflict.