The extraordinary animal that changed our lives was still a wobbly, half-blind, eight-day-old cub when we encountered her with her mother in Botswana's Okavango Delta in 2003. We'd been working for many years with big cats in Africa and had developed broad-stroke conservation ideas. But when we met this baby leopard we called Legadema (Setswana for "light from the sky") and followed her for nearly five years, she taught us something fundamental about all big cats: While we go about conservation, we often forget that beyond the alarming numbers, there are individuals with personalities and intricate lives. As their numbers decline, conservation becomes more about saving these individual animals.
Legadema grew up to be magnificent. She's seven now, and thriving. She's become mother to at least two litters. We still visit her from time to time. But in the years that we've known her, other leopards have been less fortunate. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has set quotas that permit the export of up to 2,653 leopard trophies a year. Poaching and the trade for skins used in rituals and ceremonies take a toll as well. Although precise numbers are difficult to pin down, our research indicates a drop in the number of leopards left in the wild.
Working with Legadema and becoming explorers-in-residence at National Geographic turned us into advocates. It inspired us to launch National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative (BCI) as an effort to save these top predators. Big cats are keystone species that support the African and Asian ecosystems. Without these animals, vital wilderness areas are vulnerable to collapse. Protecting the majestic lion—Africa's iconic predator, at high risk of extinction—is a major priority. If humans were systematically trying to eradicate these animals, we couldn't be doing a better job. Most people assume that there are a lot of lions left and that someone is taking care of their conservation. The truth is we've seen lion numbers decline drastically in our lifetimes. At this rate, we fear that lions could soon vanish. Without lions, the ecosystem collapses. Everything unravels. If we can't protect this species, what hope is there for the rest?
The main problem for lions is human beings. Hunters in Africa shoot hundreds of wild lions each year (in fact, 517 trophies were legally exported to the U.S. in 2008, according to CITES). As villages move closer to national parks where lions live, buffer zones vanish and conflict increases. Poor farmers lack adequate education and resources for husbandry and protection of their livestock. The result is more conflict.
To address these problems, BCI helps educate African farmers about better livestock protection and has compensated them for cattle killed by lions. We've also funded a project in Kenya's Maasailand that builds "living walls"—fences made with fast-growing indigenous trees that reach about 15 feet high. These walls help protect cattle from attack.
For three decades, we've made our home in remote areas of Botswana's Okavango Delta, a part of the world that is hidden to most people. Most of the time, it's just the two of us living in a tent, filming and researching cats, away from the complexities of what most people consider civilization. The rewards are great. We've captured amazing footage of lions attacking an elephant, and we've unlocked the mysteries of the intense relationships between lions and hyenas, and leopards and baboons. By getting to know individual animals intimately, we have helped to break down misconceptions about the world's greatest predators.
If you look into the eyes of a leopard, you can feel the deep, ancient connection between humans and this animal. We admire big cats; we fear them. We are at war with them in so many places on Earth. But there's one thing of which we're certain: Without them, we will be diminished.