Despite conservation efforts, large carnivore numbers continue to decline globally (Anonymous 2010a). Significant failures have occurred, notably, the extinction of three tiger Panthera tigris subspecies within the past 50 years (Weber & Rabinowitz 1996). The large African carnivore guild is made up of seven species (Dalerum et al. 2008) with declining populations, which are classed as follows by the International Union for Conservation of Nature: African wild dogs Lycaon pictus are ‘Endangered’, cheetahs Acinonyx jubatus and lions P. leo are ‘Vulnerable’, leopards P. pardus and striped hyaenas Hyaena hyaena are ‘Near Threatened’, brown hyaenas H. brunnea are ‘Lower Risk, Near Threatened’ and spotted hyaenas Crocuta crocuta are ‘Least Concern’ (Anonymous 2010a). Being endemic to Africa, however, the spotted hyaena is given the third highest conservation priority in Africa, following that of the endangered Ethiopian wolf Canis simensis and African wild dog (Mills et al. 2001). We excluded the striped hyaena from this review since it is considered the northern equivalent of the brown hyaena (Estes 1995).
The difficulty with conservation of large carnivores is that they inflict considerable socio-economic costs on people (Treves & Karanth 2003, Thirgood et al. 2005), and human–carnivore conflict is the main cause of large carnivore population declines (Woodroffe et al. 2005b). Nonetheless, a growing number of cases show that large carnivore conservation can be successful if the approach is coordinated on international, regional, national and local levels and effectively addresses both ecological and human aspects involved (Weber & Rabinowitz 1996, Marker 2008, Gusset et al. 2008b, Balme et al. 2009).
Our aim is to review the literature on the conservation of large African carnivores and identify and synthesize the key factors, associated principles and implications for conservation and human–carnivore conflict. This synthesis is essential to guide objectives and policies for successful long-term conservation of large African carnivores and crucial for biologists, sociologists, bureaucrats and politicians that are responsible for balancing the needs of people with the conservation of large carnivores.
KEY ECOLOGICAL FACTORS AND PRINCIPLES
Africa’s large carnivore guild per se is a critical component of biodiversity (Mills 2005, Woodroffe & Ginsberg 2005) because each species has a different prey spectrum (Hayward & Kerley 2008) whose diverse impacts increase resilience of ecosystems (Miller et al. 2001, Worm & Duffy 2003).
Conservation of intact guilds is a higher priority than conservation of single large carnivore species (Woodroffe & Ginsberg 2005).
Human–carnivore conflict implications
1. A wider range of conflict mitigation strategies are required to conserve a large carnivore guild than are required to conserve any single species. 2. The loss of large carnivores in an ecosystem can result in mesopredator release of smaller carnivore species, which may introduce, exacerbate or alter the scope of local human–carnivore conflict (Treves & Naughton-Treves 2005, Gusset et al. 2009b).
Quantitative data supporting large African carnivores as keystone species are lacking (Dalerum et al. 2008), but many researchers agree that predation shapes large mammal food webs and that the diverse, highly flexible interactions between predator and prey are vital components of biodiversity (Mills 2005, Dalerum et al. 2008, Owen-Smith & Mills 2008). Species in the large African carnivore guild have different preferred prey or prey weight ranges (Hayward & Kerley 2008). In addition, herbivores can distinguish between potential predators and may avoid risky habitats as an antipredator strategy (Thaker et al. 2011). Thus, one carnivore species cannot act as a substitute for another in the diverse trophic processes in African ecosystems (Woodroffe & Ginsberg 2005).