Recently Julia Worcester, our MuttsComics.com Youth Correspondent, interviewed Andrea Heydlauff, Vice President of Panthera. This wild cat conservation organization, based in New York City, is dedicated to conserving the 37 species of wild cats that exist around the globe. Its core focus is on range-wide conservation strategies for the largest, and some of the most imperiled cats on the planet—tigers, lions, jaguars, and snow leopards. Julia has shared her full interview with Andrea, a portion of which recently ran in Sanctuary Asia’s Cub Magazine.
We thank Julia for sharing this article and will be running it in two portions. Check back soon for Part II!
Julia Worcester: You’ve had an incredible career in wildlife conservation. When did you first know you were passionate about animals?
Andrea Heydlauff (pictured right): That’s kind of you to say but I feel like I’m just getting started! I knew I was passionate about animals as long as I can remember. I grew up in the English countryside where I’d see foxes, hedgehogs, badgers and other wildlife. Our home was always full of dogs, hamsters, fish and turtles and since the age of four, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Wildlife conservation came to me quite a bit later – when I first went to India at the age of 21 and began learning about tigers, and the many champions involved, including Ullas Karanth, George Schaller, Belinda Wright, Bittu Sahgal, and others.
JW: Can you tell me why Panthera focuses on big cats?
AH: There are 37 species of wild cats. Our programs and our efforts cover all of them, but we are really focused on the largest — tigers, lions, jaguars, and snow leopards. We have other projects on cougars, Iranian cheetahs, and we’re in the process of scaling up our cheetah and leopard projects. The reason we focus on cats, I mean, we love cats, absolutely, but we do this because they are at the top of the food chain, they are apex predators. They are what we call keystone species, like a keystone in an arch that keeps it together, if you pull out that center stone the arch falls apart, and that’s what these animals are to the ecosystems in which they live.
They are also, obviously, beautiful and charismatic. They are easy to rally behind. It’s easier to get a head of state to say, “Yes, I want to save our snow leopards.” They generate a tremendous amount of appeal and support from the general public; we’re also able to preserve everything else that shares their habitat. So while we’re focused on cats, the efforts go far beyond. If you tally up the ranges of just the four largest cats you’re looking at a third of the terrestrial landscape on earth. And because Panthera’s programs are range-wide — we’re not just focused on a few little projects here and there, we’re really looking at how you save snow leopards across their range, how you save tigers from India to the Russian Far East — we’re looking at the big picture for cats and their entire ecosystems. We see it as a wonderful way to do a lot for conservation by focusing on these cats.
JW: Can you describe Panthera’s world famous Jaguar Program? Do you think it could be a model for saving other species of cats around the world?
AH: What is unique about the jaguar corridor initiative is the scale and optimism (the latter based on science!) – and it’s a living model of what conservation looks like today, in 2012, within a human dominated landscape. We’ve been able to map out core populations where we know jaguars are and where they’re breeding as well as conduct “ground-truthings.” That means we have people on the ground verifying that we know jaguars are moving through particular areas so we’re able to map out the corridors.
The jaguar is one species, from Argentina all the way to Mexico, and the corridor is the answer to maintaining its current range across those 18 countries and making sure it remains one species and allowing individual jaguars to move and pass along their genes. It’s also a way these animals can live in human-dominated landscapes. Having a corridor doesn’t mean we need to preserve all this land. That’s unfortunately unrealistic. It’d be great if we could, but we can’t based on the needs of human populations and the way humans are growing and have altered the landscape already – and continue to do so. But it’s a solution to living with these big cats – and a way for us to be smarter about future development.
It’s a transformative program and can serve as a model for others. And it’s got all the pieces — you’ve got heads of state buying in, endorsing the corridor, and you’ve got local communities on the ground that are helping, whether it’s responding to surveys or helping to monitor, or finding solutions to living with jaguars, mitigating conflict with their cows. The whole chain of command is involved in preserving jaguars and ensuring that the corridor exists and that there’s safe passage for these animals.
JW: Can you say a little bit about tigers in India and can you talk about Panthera’s Tigers Forever Program? How do you think Indians can help their national animal?
AH: We know it’s dire straits for tigers. What’s interesting about tigers in India is that India still has the largest population of tigers, and they also have the largest population of people of any tiger range country, barring China. I’m always in awe of the level of tolerance people in India have not just for tigers, but for wildlife in general, especially when you compare that to here in the U.S. That alone is hugely hopeful —that there’s tremendous support from the general public and a booming conservation ethic among the younger people I think – especially with things like Kids for Tigers through Sanctuary! We have also been seeing in the last year or so a tremendous ramping up of efforts by particular states and by the government in wanting to do nation-wide survey efforts and more accountability from the reserves themselves.
The sad thing about tigers across their range is that because their numbers are so low, we actually know where they are, unlike other cats. There are fewer than 3,200 tigers and we’ve mapped out about 50 source populations across their range, so we know where they are and what areas need to be preserved. We know what’s needed to protect them and how to address to their biggest threats. How to save tigers is not a mystery, and right now the key effort has to be enforcement and monitoring. That’s what Panthera’s working on with Tigers Forever. The principles of that program are both of those — enforcement, lock up these core breeding populations, and monitor. Monitor not just the biological components (tiger numbers, prey numbers, and habitat) but also monitor human effort — to make sure patrols are happening, that they’re going out on foot, that their efforts are being undertaken and that they’re working to combat the tigers biggest threat – poaching. The poaching element is a very insidious one. These aren’t just poor local people killing cats. What we know is that it’s a highly equipped network of criminals, and they’re ransacking not just India’s tiger’s, but the worlds’ tigers to feed the booming demand for the illegal wildlife market.
JW: Can you tell me about your travels and any exciting experiences you’ve had with animals in the wild, especially in India?
AH: For my job, I get to travel to some pretty amazing and remote places like the Russia-China border, the Brazilian Pantanal and last November I visited Kaziranga in Assam – a highlight for me. But one of my most exciting, or memorable wildlife experiences was my first, and what has been my best, tiger sighting in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, in south west India. It was an incredible experience with the sun rising, the forest coming alive with the sounds of birds, chital barking, and this escalating series of alarm calls, and then it all just went silent. Seconds later, this gorgeous tigress walked out from the bush– into the road right in front of our vehicle, luckily we were the only car around, it was literally just a group of four of us, and this female tiger. She walked across the path, stopped to look at us, and then she began to chuff, which is this lovely vocalization that sort of sounds like peacock feathers rustling; she was communicating with her cubs whom we didn’t see. It was such a beautiful, stunning moment, a perfect sighting that I think about often, and how lucky I was to see her in that way. She serves as a reminder to me about what we’re fighting to protect.
JW: What do you enjoy most about your job?
AH: Meeting with local people on the ground, whether our field scientists or park guards, who are doing the lion’s share of the work to protect wildlife. One of the best things I did last year was meet the guards in Kaziranga. I love being able to come back and to tell people about these stories – about these incredible people I meet in remote corners of the world – doing extraordinary things, with few resources, taking risks, for the sake of protecting wildlife. They are my inspiration. Panthera’s an amazing platform for that. I need to make more time to write these stories, to convey what is happening on the front lines. Because for me, that’s where I get inspired and am moved on a daily basis, frankly, by the people that are doing all of our work, that are saving and protecting everyone’s wildlife. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing if I didn’t believe there was hope for these species — and hope lies in these extraordinary people. (Read Andrea’s article on Conservation’s unsung heroes.)