I must admit, the first time I saw the image on the left back in 2013 I could be barely believe my eyes. Such is the juxtaposition of the bright lights of modern society, and a 300,000 year old predator living quite literally on top of each other that the worldwide stir created by this photo was certainly justified. I know Mountain Lions aren’t strictly part of Panthera, (they belong to the other sub-family within cats – Felinae) however human big cat conflict has always been a particular interest of mine, and besides Leopards in Mumbai (which I plan to cover in a future post), I can’t think of another prominent example of big cats (or large, felid predators) living within a large urban/suburban environment (if you do know of any other examples please do let me know!).
The mountain lion pictured on the left, is known as P-22 (the name of his radio collar tag) however despite being the most famous cat in LA, he isn’t the only puma roaming the suburban jungle. I find it absolutely fascinating that in one of the worlds most populous cities, apex predators and humans can live side by side with relatively little conflict, and it’s long puzzled me as to the reasons why. Is it the mountain lion’s nature to hide from and avoid human interaction? Is it simply a case of having the resources available to mitigate the conflict? Or is it a case of the communities which live side by side with cougars having more access to educational resources and information to make themselves aware of the threat?
More than half on California is mountain lion territory, and there are thought to be as many as 5000 cats roaming its mountains and forests. Solitary and elusive, cougars are the most widespread, large land dwelling mammal in the western hemisphere with a range stretching from Canada in the north to the southern tips of Chile and Argentina at its southernmost extremity. Cougars are a remarkable, and refreshing wild felid success story with numbers bouncing back from all time lows in the 1900’s after they were extensively hunted with “cougar bounties” places on their heads, and ate bait laden with poisons.
Our expanding society often comes with a heavy price for wildlife, as habitat loss frequently takes its toll on large apex predators. However cougars have found a way to live side by side with humans in LA, and with just one fatal attack every six years on average across the whole of the US since 1890, have the public learnt to tolerate the presence of these great cats in their society? It’s worth noting, that out of the 145 reported attacks on humans since records began in 1890, just over two thirds have come in the last two decades. As communities and towns continue growing, outside of LA there is evidence that humans are indeed coming into increased conflict with cougars, however that still doesn’t explain the apparent lack of such conflict in Los Angeles.
There are thought to be around ten mountain lions roaming the 250 square mile fragmented network of reserves, private land , parks and forests which make up the Santa Monica mountains, and there are thought to be between another twenty to thirty cougars living in the Santa Ana mountains to the south of the city. Whilst on the surface it may appear that cougars are thriving, or at least breeding successfully in and around LA, the relentless development and expansion of the city and ever increasing network of freeways is causing the mountain lion’s habitat to become ever more fragmented, with the potential dangers for future generations of cougars increasing every decade.
As the corridors between fragments narrow, or get cut off completely, mountain lions are faced with having to move across large developed areas of land in search of a habitat and a mate. The famous P-22 Griffith park cougar had crossed 16 lanes of freeway and travelled 22 miles to end up in his new home, a journey no doubt fraught with danger and risk. As populations of mountain lions become increasingly fragmented, inbreeding, and battles for resources will no doubt soon begin to take it’s toll on the LA cougar population. According to reports, lions in the Santa Monica mountains have already killed each other in battles for food and resources, and males mated with daughters, such circumstances no doubt allude to a ticking time bomb, where symptoms of inbreeding will be visible within decades, or some individuals from the population must make the treacherous journey across developed ground.
The competition for resources is reflected in the deaths of twelve mountain lions on freeways in the last dozen years, and the first mountain lion highway pencilled in to begin construction in 2018 can’t come soon enough for LA’s cougars. By allowing mountain lions a safe passage between habitats, we can at least hope that the populations can continue to thrive and diversify, all alongside having a unique opportunity to study such great predators and how they interact with society.
Studying the interaction between mountain lions and humans in LA could provide us with a clue, and some warnings about the future of human/animal conflicts worldwide. After all, cities such as LA and Mumbai are unlikely to stop growing, meaning human/big cat conflict is inevitable. We should be doing all we can to take advantage of being able to study apex predators, especially when they are on our doorstep. However at the same time, like on so many occasions in history, we should be careful to protect what so many of us take for granted.