Why Are So Many Carnivores Threatened?

Carnivore species, especially larger carnivores, are more likely to be threatened than herbivores. There are several reasons. First, carnivores occur naturally at much lower densities than herbivores. This is a matter of simple arithmetic. (Take, for example, the case of the puma and the mule deer, the species it most commonly preys on. If there were as many pumas as mule deer, neither species could survive for long: as soon as each puma hunted and killed one deer, the deer population would be eliminated, and the puma would not last much longer without its main food source.) With naturally lower population densities, carnivores are more likely to become endangered than herbivores are, because each individual that succumbs to an environmental threat represents a much higher proportion of the species' overall population.

Compared to herbivores of the same size, individual carnivores generally require a much larger territory, as they must range more widely to find sufficient food. As a result, they are more susceptible than herbivores to the impact of habitat loss, degradation or fragmentation.

Carnivores are also more likely than herbivores to be perceived as a threat to human life or livelihood. While large herbivores such as deer, antelope and kangaroos may compete for grazing resources with cattle or sheep, they are not as direct a threat as large carnivores that may prey upon livestock. A few large carnivore species can kill humans as well; while such occurrences are rare, they can evoke a strong, primal fear. For these reasons, carnivores have often been persecuted by humans through hunting, trapping and poisoning. Two large carnivore species that were driven to extinction by such persecution are the warrah (Falklands Islands wolf) and the thylacine (Tasmanian "tiger"). Many more species have been extirpated from large portions of their original range by direct human persecution.

Although not unique to carnivores, some species are threatened by hunting or poaching to exploit some part of their anatomy considered desirable. The sea mink was hunted to extinction for its fur in the 19th century; more recently, the Japanese sea lion and the Caribbean monk seal both went extinct in the mid 20th century as a result of hunting for their oil. Today, some fur seal, otter and cat species are threatened by poaching for the illegal fur trade, and tigers are heavily poached both for their fur and for various body parts, particularly bone, used in Chinese traditional medicine.