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Halting the Decline of Big Cats

Our explorers in the field are working to safeguard big cats. 
Find out how they’re making a difference. 

Our Approach

The Big Cats Initiative takes a three-pronged approach to halt the decline of big cats in the wild.

We Assess
We assess and map current populations of big cats worldwide and analyze the success of measures implemented to help protect them. This knowledge helps guide which protection efforts we choose to fund. In 2017, we conducted a gap analysis to help maximize the impact of our grant-making. As a result, we have identified 20 priority lion populations on which to focus funding moving forward.

We Protect
We support conservation projects designed and implemented by people living in the areas where big cats live. Our grantees work in places where people and wildlife collide, creating innovative solutions to help local communities and big cats coexist. In 2018, grantees worked in more than 300 communities, with a total population of more than 250,000 people. These Explorers provided training, materials, and funding to almost 8,000 people, and educated almost 8,000 students.

We Communicate
Together with Nat Geo WILD, we are spreading the word about the decline of big cats in the wild. We offer classroom and educational resources to inspire the next generation to learn about these majestic creatures and the wild places they inhabit and offer classroom and educational resources and big cats programming on Nat Geo WILD to connect the stories of these animals with a global audience.

Map of National Geographic Lion Priority Areas

National Geographic Big Cats Initiative lion priority areas. For a larger view of the map click here.

MAP BY NGS STAFF; INTERNATIONAL MAPPING SOURCE: ANDREW JACOBSON AND JASON RIGGIO.

MEET BIG CAT EXPLORERS

If you are interested in becoming a National Geographic Explorer, visit our grants page for more information on funding opportunities. 

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Matt Smith Becker
Conservation Biologist, Zambia
Matt Smith Becker
 Conservation Biologist, Zambia
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Matthew Smith Becker is the CEO and Programme Director of the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP), and an Affiliate Research Faculty at Montana State University's Department of Ecology. In collaboration with the Zambia Department of National Parks and Wildlife and an array of local and international conservation partners, ZCP conducts long-term conservation work on large carnivores (lion, cheetah, leopard, wild dog, spotted hyena) in the Luangwa Valley, Kafue and Liuwa Ecosystems, while providing employment, training and advanced education to current and future Zambian conservation leaders. National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative-funded work includes combating wire-snare poaching, the bushmeat and wildlife parts trade, assessing population status, trends, predator guild dynamics and predator-prey dynamics, assisting carnivore management and land-use planning, and assessing trends and patterns of human encroachment in protected area networks. Back
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Shivani Bhalla
Wildlife Conservationist, Kenya
Shivani Bhalla
 Wildlife Conservationist, Kenya
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Conservation biologist Shivani Bhalla, a fourth-generation Kenyan, is working to safeguard the future of Kenya’s rapidly declining lion populations. She is founder and executive director of Ewaso Lions, a conservation organization that uses scientific research and community outreach to promote coexistence between people and lions who share habitats. It is the only organization that focuses on lions that live both inside and outside protected areas in northern Kenya. There are now fewer than 2,000 lions in Kenya, and they could vanish within two decades if habitat loss and conflict with humans continues. Ewaso Lions’ innovative community outreach programs, which involve young tribal warriors as well as women and children, are helping foster local support for conservation. Bhalla’s team has dramatically changed local attitudes, and the lion population she monitors has grown to its highest numbers in a dozen years. Back
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Femke Broekhuis
Conservation Biologist, Kenya
Femke Broekhuis
 Conservation Biologist, Kenya
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Femke Broekhuis is a senior research associate with Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. She has spent over a decade observing and conserving large carnivores in the African savanna, and her recent work has focused on determining carnivore densities and their distributions, as these are important conservation metrics, and understanding how carnivores and people can coexist. Broekhuis’s career as a large carnivore ecologist started with her master’s thesis on cheetahs in Tanzania’s Serengeti, after which she joined the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust in Northern Botswana. Having been awarded the Thomas Kaplan Prize scholarship, she spent several years in Botswana investigating interactions between cheetahs, African wild dogs, lions, and spotted hyenas. After completing her Ph.D., Broekhuis moved to Kenya where she spearheaded a cheetah project in the Masai Mara that focused on understanding and promoting coexistence between carnivores and people. Since 2018, she has been working on various carnivore-related projects. The most recent and ambitious one is helping the Kenya Wildlife Service determine the status of lions and other large carnivores across Kenya. In addition to KWS, Broekhis is affiliated with the Kenya Wildlife Trust and is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Cat Specialist Group.

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Amy Dickman
Conservationist, Tanzania
Amy Dickman
 Conservationist, Tanzania
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Amy Dickman is the Kaplan Senior Research Fellow in Wild Cat Conservation at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. She has worked in Africa for over 20 years, specializing in human-carnivore conflict and community-based conservation. She worked at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia before moving to Tanzania, where she studied for her M.Sc. and Ph.D. She established the Ruaha Carnivore Project in 2009, which works closely with local villagers to develop effective conservation solutions. She heads a team of over 70 people in the field, focused on ensuring that local communities truly benefit from the conservation of big cats and other wildlife. Dickman is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission’s Cat Specialist Group and African Lion Working Group, and has published over 60 papers and book chapters on large carnivore conservation. Dickman is a co-founder of the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance and is helping to develop initiatives to empower future female conservation leaders in Africa. Dickman was awarded the Rabinowitz-Kaplan Prize for the Next Generation in Wild Cat Conservation, St. Louis Zoo Conservation Award, and Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens Wildlife Conservation Award, and was a finalist for the prestigious Tusk Award. Back
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Paula Kahumbu
Ecologist, Kenya
Paula Kahumbu
 Ecologist, Kenya
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Paula Kahumbu received her Ph.D. in ecology at Princeton University where she studied elephants in coastal Kenya. She is currently the CEO of WildlifeDirect and brainchild of the HANDS OFF OUR ELEPHANTS campaign with Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta the First Lady of the Republic of Kenya. The campaign is widely recognized for its singular successes in advocacy and the engagement of people in Kenya to support the protection of elephants. She received a special commendation from the United Nations for her critical role in creating awareness and mobilizing action around the crisis facing elephants in Kenya. She is recognized as a Kenyan conservation ambassador by Brand Kenya and in 2015 received the presidential award and title of Order of the Grand Warrior. Back
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Laly Lichtenfeld
Conservationist, Tanzania
Laly Lichtenfeld
 Conservationist, Tanzania
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National Geographic Explorer Laly Lichtenfeld believes wild animals and humans can coexist in harmony. Residing in Tanzania, Lichtenfeld co-founded African People & Wildlife in 2005 to help rural communities conserve and benefit from their wildlife and natural resources. She first traveled to the African continent with the National Outdoor Leadership School in 1992. Moved by the remarkable wildlife, cultures, and landscapes of East Africa, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to evaluate a community-based conservation project in southern Kenya. In 2005, Lichtenfeld received her Ph.D. from Yale University for novel research combining wildlife ecology and social ecology in an interdisciplinary study of human-lion relationships, interactions, and conflicts on the Maasai Steppe of northern Tanzania. Today, with 20 years of on-the-ground experience in East African wildlife conservation, Lichtenfeld specializes in human-wildlife conflict prevention, species conservation focusing on lions and other big cats, community empowerment and engagement in natural resource management, conservation education, and the development of conservation incentives for rural people. An accomplished speaker, Lichtenfeld is a Distinguished Alumni of Yale’s Tropical Resources Institute and a recipient of the 2016 Lowell Thomas Award for Open Space Conservation from the historic Explorers Club. For more information, visit africanpeoplewildlife.org. Back
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Tutilo Mudumba
Conservation Biologist, Uganda
Tutilo Mudumba
 Conservation Biologist, Uganda
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Tutilo Mudumba is an awarding-winning conservation biologist, conservation entrepreneur, teacher and mentor. For over a decade, Mudumba has researched and published on the key threats to the survival of the African lion in Uganda and featured in several wildlife documentaries.

Mudumba is the founder and co-director of the Snares to Wares Initiative, 501(c)3 status non-profit which uses illegal wire snares collected from national parks to make wildlife sculptures for sale thereby improving the livelihood of youth who would otherwise be recruited into poaching and directly stopping the snaring of wildlife. For his conservation entrepreneurship, Mudumba has claimed several awards including the inaugural winner of "African Student at Michigan State University with the Most Outstanding Contribution to the Development of Africa through Capacity Building".

Mudumba's ambition is to create a center for incubating innovations in conservation with the aim of training a more rounded generation of wildlife conservationists. His life goal is to increase the number of scientists from the East African region capable of innovating tools to deal with conservation challenges in 21st-century.

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Thandiwe Mweetwa
Ecologist, Zambia
Thandiwe Mweetwa
 Ecologist, Zambia
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Thandiwe Mweetwa is a Zambian wildlife biologist and conservation educator working to protect large carnivores in her home country with the nonprofit organization Zambian Carnivore Programme. She holds a bachelor’s degree in applied animal biology from the University of British Columbia and a master’s degree in natural resources conservation from the University of Arizona. Thandiwe is interested in studying the population dynamics of apex predators inhabiting areas experiencing heavy anthropogenic pressures. As a believer and supporter of community-based conservation, she is also dedicated to exploring effective ways of integrating local communities in wildlife conservation through environmental awareness programs, capacity building, youth empowerment, and citizen science initiatives. Thandiwe is the manager of the Zambian Carnivore Programme’s conservation education program, which is designed to gain local support for the protection of large carnivores and their habitat, and to promote interest in conservation-based careers among local youths. In 2016, she launched an initiative aimed at increasing the representation of Zambian women in the conservation sector by providing training opportunities to motivated young women. Her work to protect big cats in Zambia through research, capacity building, and conservation education has been featured in several BBC documentaries and National Geographic videos. Thandiwe is a National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee and a 2016 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

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Andrew Stein
Conservation Biologist, Botswana
Andrew Stein
 Conservation Biologist, Botswana
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Andrew Stein has 15 years’ experience working on human-carnivore conflict throughout East and southern Africa. His work draws upon his interest in wildlife ecology, culture, and engaging with communities to develop pragmatic solutions to challenging issues. His previous work includes studies of African wild dogs and lions in Laikipia, Kenya, and leopards on farmlands in the Soutpansberg, South Africa, and in Namibia’s Waterberg region. After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Stein headed a field camp overseeing ecological research on big cats, African wild dogs, and spotted hyenas in northern Botswana. In 2015, he founded the CLAWS Conservancy (Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustainably), a nonprofit promoting human-wildlife coexistence. His current research initiatives include Pride in Our Prides, a human-lion conflict study in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, that engages the community in lion monitoring by informing communities about the habits of individual lions and providing real-time text alerts. The program has helped stabilize and increase the lion population and halt the use of poison to kill the big cats. Stein is an assistant professor of natural sciences at Landmark College, Putney, Vermont. He has received support from National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative since 2014. Back
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Vincent van der Merwe
Conservation Biologist, South Africa
Vincent van der Merwe
 Conservation Biologist, South Africa
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Vincent van der Merwe’s upbringing on an avocado farm in South Africa triggered an interest in all things biological. After high school, he pursued a B.Sc. degree in entomology at the University of Pretoria whilst serving with the South African Army. After a stint as a safari guide, Van der Merwe returned to university to complete a B.Sc. (Hons.) degree in conservation genetics. He then moved to Mozambique, where he worked as an environmental consultant and high school biology teacher. Upon returning to South Africa, Van der Merwe completed an M.Sc. in conservation biology at the University of Cape Town. He was then employed as the coordinator of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation project. Since 2011, he has overseen the growth of the metapopulation from 217 cheetah on 41 reserves to 357 individuals on 55 reserves. In 2016, the Cheetah Metapopulation project was expanded into Malawi with the successful reintroduction of wild cheetah into Liwonde National Park after a 20-year absence in that country. When Van der Merwe realised the potential of metapopulation management for securing safe spaces for carnivores, he decided to pursue a Ph.D. on the subject. Van der Merwe's research interests include the historical distribution of cheetah in southern Africa, their genetic status and the global decline of wild cheetah populations over the past 13,000 years. His hobbies include hiking, playing squash, traveling in Africa and farming avocados. In 2015, Van der Merwe received the Endangered Wildlife Trust Conservation Achiever of the Year award. In 2017, he received the South African National Parks Kudu Award for Individual contribution to conservation. Back
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Dr Rudie van Vuuren
Conservationist; Physician
Dr Rudie van Vuuren
 Conservationist; Physician
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Rudie van Vuuren is a fourth generation Namibian. He set up the N/a'an ku sê Foundation with his wife and fellow conservationist Marlice van Vuuren, and the support of other investors in 2006. The N/a'an ku sê Foundation's mission is to conserve the land, cultures and wildlife of Namibia. The foundation undertakes four main projects: The N/a'an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary (established 2007), N/a'an ku sê Research and Conservation (established 2008), the Lifeline Clinic (established 2003), and the Clever Cubs School (established 2009). Through these crucial projects the organization improves the health and well-being of the ancient San Bushman, provides a second chance to orphaned and injured animals, and undertakes vital research and field work to protect and conserve Namibian wildlife including leopard, cheetah, spotted hyaena, brown hyaena and African wild dog. Through the N/a'an ku sê carnivore conservation research project and rapid response team (established in 2008), van Vuuren and his team mitigate human-carnivore conflict across Namibia for threatened species including big cats. They do this through working directly with landowners and other key stakeholders to reduce persecutions, preserve large carnivores in their current habitats, support farmers with effective tools to manage carnivores on their land, and educate stakeholders on carnivore behavior and ecology. van Vuuren lives with Marlice and his two children on the N/a'an ku sê reserve, located 45 minutes outside Windhoek. Back
Big Cats Initiative
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