Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hunter by name but big cat survival's his game

Chee Chee Leung
August 14, 2008

Luke Hunter attaches a radio collar to a lion in Uganda, as part of his global conservation efforts.
WITH a name like Luke Hunter, it seems somehow fitting that this Australian scientist would be drawn to the big cats of the wild.

But while he's a Hunter by name, the 39-year-old's career has been devoted to protecting these creatures in their natural environments.

His work has taken him across the globe, and includes studies of tigers in Asia, lions in Africa, and panthers in South America.

Now he has returned to Australia for National Science Week, which begins on Saturday, touring the country to speak about the importance of animal conservation.

Dr Hunter wants to highlight the plight of the big cats, some critically endangered due to threats from habitat loss and hunting. But he also hopes to encourage people to become interested in protecting wildlife generally. "There aren't any big cats here, but there's just as much need for the same kinds of conservation of our native species," he said.

The Melbourne-born scientist's passion for the big cat family began as a three-year-old, and by 12 he was writing to scientists around the world asking for copies of their big cat research papers. Every year as his birthday treat, the family would make the trek from their Rowville home to see the big cats at the Melbourne Zoo.

As a high school student, he did sometimes wonder whether he would be able to translate his passion into a profession. "I grew up on the only continent — apart from Antarctica — that doesn't have big cats … I was thinking, 'How does a kid from Melbourne end up in Africa?' "

But after completing a science degree at Monash University, he won a scholarship to study in South Africa where he spent whole days watching and monitoring lions to see if they could be re-established in the wild. "It was absolutely everything I dreamed about, it was just spectacular."

Now as executive director of the New York-based Panthera Foundation, which focuses on conserving wild cats, his projects include tracking rare Asiatic cheetahs in Iran, developing a conservation plan for the African lion, and assessing the impact of sport hunting on leopards.

Population figures for large cats paint a disturbing picture.

Lion numbers have fallen from more than 100,000 a century ago to fewer than 40,000 today, and cheetah numbers are down to fewer than 15,000. Tigers live in just 7% of their historic range. But Dr Hunter is confident proper planning will ensure the long-term survival of the big cats. "I'm pretty sure if we continue on the tack we're taking now, they're still going to be around for generations to come."


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