Two big cats – the African lion and the Sunda clouded leopard – are most at risk from extinction caused by loss of prey, according to a new analysis.
Lack of food was a factor in why seven big cats, including sabre-toothed tigers, went extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, say scientists.
The trend is continuing, threatening a range of modern big cats, they warn.
If the prey of big cats continues to decline it will add to other pressures such as habitat loss, a study found.
Dr Chris Sandom from the University of Sussex said: “I think it adds an extra pressure for these animals. They are already suffering quite heavily from other conflicts with humans.”
He said the lesson from the past was that even if Ice Age big cats had survived conflicts with humans and the changing climate, they would not have had much left to eat.
“We’re in a continued decline of big, exciting animals,” he added. “These charismatic predators are facing this consistent threat that started in the Ice Age and continues to this day and we need to turn that trend around.”
The research, led by scientists at Sussex and Oxford universities, looked at the causes of extinction in seven big cats – four different types of sabre-toothed cats, the cave and American lions, and the American cheetah.
They found that if the animals had survived until modern times they would have lost the majority of their prey, partly due to human influences.
The researchers then turned their attention to modern big cats, and the status of their prey.
If all the prey species currently considered at risk were to go extinct, then the lions of East Africa and the clouded leopards of Indo-Malaya would be in a similar position to their Ice Age relatives, say the scientists.
The same would apply to some populations of tiger, leopard and cheetah.
Prof David Macdonald, Director of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, said: “The Churchillian aphorism that those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it was painfully in mind when we saw how many of the prey of lions and East Africa and of clouded leopards in Indo-Malaya look set to go down the same drain down which their counterparts in other regions have already been flushed.”
The Sunda clouded leopard is a medium-sized wild cat found in forests of the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra.