Where Have the Chinese leopards Gone?
Leopards, sleek and beautiful predators that once roamed freely and plentifully throughout China’s wilderness, are gone. Sometime in the mid 1960s, according to many zoologists, China lost its last remaining leopard. Or so we thought. The truth is, however, quite the opposite: though dauntingly secretive, these felines have found a way to survive in the recesses of China’s more wild and forgotten spaces.
Leopards, sleek and beautiful predators that once roamed freely and plentifully throughout China’s wilderness, are gone. Sometime in the mid 1960s, according to many zoologists, China lost its last remaining leopard. Or so we thought. The truth is, however, quite the opposite: though dauntingly secretive, these felines have found a way to survive in the recesses of China’s more wild and forgotten spaces. Their whereabouts secretive and mostly active under the cloak of nighttime darkness, even researchers who spend their lives studying these leopards know little about them. Recent discoveries have, however, given them hope: though worryingly scarce, leopards are still here. The Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance, a not-for-profit conservation organization, has for years been leading in an effort to monitor and protect these elusive Chinese leopards. Their first-hand information shows us that not only are these creatures as beautiful and ethereal as they are imagined to be, but more importantly they counter the long held belief that China’s leopards have been lost.
On my cluttered Beijing desk, where empty space fights a losing battle with piles of papers, books, and my aging laptop, sits a plush toy: a small life-like leopard, its mouth holding a juicy red steak. It is, of course, not real. Its prototype, named “M2”, a North- Chinese leopard (Pant her a par dusjap on en sis ), is, however, very much alive. As I type these words, the real version of my steak-chewing plush toy is out roaming the wild Taihang Mountains. Prior to the advent of social media, the volunteer-run Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance (CFCA), who more often go by the affectionately adopted moniker “cat family”, used plush toys — such as the one lounging on my desk — in an attempt to massage the conflict between people’s perceptions of leopards and their increasing rarity; dubbed the “leopard conflict”, the conservation alliance was set on indulging the public, somewhat playfully, in the beauty and ecological plights of these wild cats by giving them personality and perspective. They have taken care to make this not just playful and cute, but real; each plush represents a real cat, one of the few known living leopards in the wild recesses of China’s forests. My plush “M2” is dutifully outfitted with the real scars and missing left ear of its wild model.
Chinese leopards were not always on my radar. My first foray into the secretive world of these big cats was actually only recently, when I read a 2015 report in the Chinese national geographic magazine about North-Chinese leopards. And it was this very individual, “M2”, that brought me to their world: “Ten-year- old leopard, M2, though larger and more impressive, is similar to the domestic housecat. Walking silently, the leopard’s spots melt silently in the mottled light permeating the forest of the Taihang Mountains. Familiar with the peaks and streams, rich with wild boar and roe deer, M2’s females lead their families through the rugged terrain. In time the leopard cubs grow up and move away, spreading out to the neighboring valleys, setting up their own life in a new land. It was this way for M2 many years ago. Today, with his wife and children, M2 has made its own wild utopia.”
Domestic Prey: The Threat of Leopards on Livestock
The first I ever heard of the CFCA conservation alliance — the “cat family” — was a few years ago when I ran into a group of them in Shanxi Province, deep in the forests of the North China. Armed with infrared camera traps, they were in the midst of a campaign to gather basic information about the elusive leopards. Where did they live? How many are there? Each camera they strapped to a tree — set to take a picture when tripped by either motion or body heat of a passing leopard, or any other living creature
— would help piece together a picture of Chinese leopard ecology that is, still to this day, almost completely blank.
This “cat family” was originally composed of eco-enthusiasts from environmental organizations and amateur volunteers, and maintained a staff of only five people — none of them professional biologists — driven by their passion for leopards: Song Dazhao, known as “Big Cat”, left a lucrative IT position at the age of 30 and now leads CFCA surveys throughout China; Wan Shaoping, known as “Black Stork”, is a keen birder and left behind a life as an business executive and now facilitates the teams ecological research; “Ming Zi” Cui Shiming left the world of advertising to help with field work and cameras operations; “Xiao Zhao” didn’t really leave the world of product design, but certainly shifted focus and is now the one responsible for outreach, such as the leopard plush toy campaign; and “Qiao Qiao”, a former outdoor magazine editor. Together, with little training and little experience, this mismatched group of executives, reporters, designers, and IT specialists combined into what is now a key and leading force in the research and conservation of China’s least known animal.
I did not think much of the encounter at the time, but then came the Chinesenationalgeographic article and everything changed. When I finished reading it, I kept the magazine close by. Occupying a space on my desk that is now taken over by the steak- hungry plush leopard, I would find myself repeatedly skimming through it over lunches, drifting off in daydream as it caught my eye randomly throughout the day, and always wondering: who are they? I was thirsty for more — more leopards, and more of this “cat family”. With a little digging I found a blog where they maintained a collection of field stories as well as some more in depth leopard research findings. Having almost memorized the magazine article, I started following their blogging as much as I could. Then one day I read a passage that both startled and moved me: “…farmland and roads
have been pushed deeper and deeper in the once wild leopard habitat. In the spring, hungry leopards faced with a declining natural prey population and encroached upon by rangelands and livestock, are stuck. M2 stutters at the roadside, not sure what to do. He is unwilling to lead his family across the newly built road. Hungry, in order to fill his stomach while also protecting his range, he is forced to look towards the livestock for food. Unbeknownst to him, this is a gamble: leopards have been poisoned for this in the past.”
As the population of livestock explodes across the once- wild leopard territories, the number of wild animals has dramatically imploded, including key prey animals. It is the embodiment of the conflict between human development and nature. In order to survive, M2 was left with no other options — no item left on his menu — other than the plentiful cattle. He started with the smaller, more easily obtained calves. Only five or six months old, these calves can sell on the market for between seven and eight hundred dollars, no small sum of money and upwards of half a year’s salary for a farmer. Each calf a leopard kills is another step deep- er into poverty and despair for these farmers, and they are not above killing leopards in attempt to save their livestock. As the words drifted through my mind the leopards went from intangible charismatic beasts to persecuted and imperiled species; the “cat family” went from untouchable wild explorers to ecological guardians. I was hooked. After a few short emails, arrangements were made to join them in the field on yet another of their camera trap campaign. When I got the confirmation email, I was stunned. It was happening. I changed my calendar, re-scheduling meetings and interviews, packed my bags and rushed out to northern China. I eventually found myself sitting in a well-used truck with the very people I had read about, bumping our way up a forgotten road in a forgotten piece of China’s wilderness. Leopard land. Driving along a narrow mountain road in Heshun County in Shanxi Province, dead branches poke
out along the roadside, constantly scratching at the trucks paint. These join others already etched on the doors and bumpers, and the lack of concern on the faces of the team tells me that they have travelled this road many times before. To the soundtrack of scratching paint and the grinding of rubber tires on the loose rubble below, Wan Shaoping quickly brings me up to speed on the “leopard conflict”: the calves, the leopards, and the government’s efforts to make peace between the two sides. “This place is technically off-limits — forbidden — for farmers to bring their livestock”. In areas that are not off-limits, in the legal grazing lands, a farmer can be compensated for killed livestock through a very supportive insurance policy: prove a leopard killed your cattle, and the government will buy it from you. But here, and in other similarly protected and cattle- free regions, no compensation is offered. “This is leopard land”, motioning to the forest around us. Yet, protected land is not a guarantee of leopard safety; knowing that the government will not financially compensate them, and knowing also that viable grazing land is becoming scarce, farmers continue to illegally push their animals further and deeper into this illegal, protected land. There are few wardens to stop them. And, as their own private insurance policy, many farmers actively poison the leopards.
In 2015, the “cat family” came up with a novel idea: pay farmers. If a farmer reports a dead calf on protected leopard land, they — instead of the government — offer financial compensation. For a dead calf they give 150 dollars; mature cattle get 300 dollars. While this money is of some benefit to the farmers, it is not certainly enough to reclaim the total lost value of the dead livestock. It does, however, ease the pain and help heal the wound between the farmers and the leopards, and it seems to have had a positive impact in decreasing reports of poisoned leopards. In 2015 alone they compensated farmers for 48 dead or
wounded cattle, for a total cost to the CFCA of about 10,000 dollars. Portions of this money came from a supporting conservation organization, Kadoorie Conservation China, as well as the Heshun County People’s Hospital. But the conflict and killings are increasing. To keep up with the financially burdensome project, the CFCA has increased their outreach and undertaken various public fundraising campaigns. My steak- eating plush leopard, diligently monitoring my desk as I amble through the forest searching for its real-life cousins hundreds of kilometers away, is just one of the many leopards they have sold to raise money.
“Leopards have no need for humans to buy them beef ”, offering a dour perspective of what the compensation is actually achieving. “If humans don’t interfere, they will be strong. They will hunt. They will find prey. ” The road narrows, and soon the scratching is joined by ominous creaking as the aged truck navigates decaying road. Above the chorus of scratching and creaking and bouncing gear, he continues: “there has to be a better way to help the leopards. This is not a solution.”
How can we actually solve the leopard conflict? Theoretic approaches abound, one of which is to use available money to instead help develop local agricultural alternatives. Combined with strengthening existing laws to better manage livestock — and actually prevent them from entering protected areas — this might work. But it is not something that this “cat family”, a small band of leopard-loving citizens, can accomplish alone.
Romantic Wilderness? The Reality of Researching Leopards
Since discovering this team of pioneering leopard crusaders, I have heard a variety of rumors about them. Some idealize them as a special-forces team of jungle warriors; others portray them as romantics, living a placid life in the wild and green mountains, befriended by wild animals as they wander the land alone.
But I disagree. After spending one day with the team, it is clear that there is nothing ethereal and nothing serene about their work; their adventures are not romantic. Life for the “cat family” is a daily trudge through harshly built land, filled with steep slopes, loose rocks and muddy soil, all under a constant threat of weather and predators. Rarely is there time to rest. A simple act of changing a memory card and batteries in one of their infrared cameras is a jarring reality check: no trails to follow, only thick forests to wade through, snow covered rocks and crumbling cliffs to climb, soggy wetlands to ford, and there are no cabins, no beds, and no running water to help slough off the strain and cuts and sweat of the day’s work. It is a rough existence. However, even in these harsh and distinctly unromantic conditions, the stoic “cat family”, just like the leopards they fight to protect, persist and persevere.
The most recent addition to the team, Qiao Qiao, was actually drawn to the work because of these conditions. Joining the team on one outing as a journalist, she was intrigued not only by their work and their goals, but also by the rawness of what they went through. She became friends with the crew, and soon afterwards joined them officially as a field assistant. During her first survey with the team she helped collect leopard scat, part of an effort to document the leopard’s diet, and along the way, on multiple
occasions, almost came face to face with the scats owner. Life is rough, and it is dangerous in the wild searching for leopards. But this is what keeps the team going.
Over the past few years, the CFCA’S work has blossomed and become not only pioneering, but foundational to leopard conservation. To date they have undertaken countless camera-trapping campaigns throughout the leopard’s territory and have come back with more than 3,000 video clips. From this vast log of footage, they have identified 20 individuals. Ming Zi tells me that they have all been photographed at least once, though some have become frequent camera visitors more than others.
When people listen to these stories their reactions are almost always the same: “Really? Shanxi has leopards?” In fact, though they are somewhat cryptic, there is quite a wide scattering of places through- out the Taihang Mountains that have recorded leopards. The dire problem of habitat fragmentation has, however, made the Taihang Mountains — once a peak of the leopard population — into just that: a scattering of suitable places. Fragments, isolated islands of forest that once were connected into a wide, breathtakingly wild ecosystem. No longer do they call this whole mountain range their home; today, only a patchwork of remaining wild and untouched places is left to the leopards. Dr. Feng Limin, a researcher from Beijing Normal University and member of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), has come on board as a volunteer scientific advisor for the CFCA. After years of conducting critically important research throughout the leopard’s range, he and the CFCA are hoping to move forward with not only suggestions of, but also evidence to support, legislation to upgrade existing or create new pro-
tected habitat for the leopards. Their goal is a united national nature reserve; they want a legal — and protected — home for the leopards.
We leave the truck parked on the side of the hill and trudge upwards. Our goal is a camera trap hidden in the forest far above the road. Switching the old memory card with a new empty one, we settle into a small shaded area with flat rocks and open a laptop. Ming Zi loads the memory card in — too excited to wait for the office — and starts scanning through the captured images. Immediately there is a chorus of gasps as the first picture loads: a large figure of a leopard, clear and close, brandishing a calm and uncaring expression pops up on the screen. We can clearly see its patterning, key information in the process of differentiating between individuals. The gasps are followed by a long stretch of silence as we stare at the beautiful image.
Ming Zi breaks the silence with a deflating sigh. Pointing to the date and time stamp recorded on the corner of the screen, Ming Zi tells me that this near perfect image was taken less than half an hour after they had set the camera up; had they waited a few moments longer they might have ended up face to face with the leopard. Regret is hard to shake, and even I — someone who was not even present when the camera was set up — feel the pang of regret dig deep inside me. With a slight head shake and waving of the hand, Ming Zi seems to have forgiven the missed opportunity. “The leopard was probably waiting in the forest, watching us. When we left, it probably approached to investigate. We could have waited half an hour, or five hours. We would probably never have seen it”. I applaud Ming Zi’s optimism, but an unspoken feeling hovers in the air that maybe, just maybe, this is not true; maybe if we wait long enough, it will come again. Slowly, we pack up, each of us scanning the surrounding woods for a hint of another waiting leopard.
The world of the Chinese leopards has many questions still unanswered, and there are many areas still unexplored. One part that is well understood is the role of humans: unlike the leopard population, China’s population is booming. Northern China is quite large, but there are still few places untouched — few truly pristine and native ecosystems — and much of the “natural” land have been converted to concrete or rangeland. The Taihang Mountains are
perhaps the leopards’ last respite; a last fragment in a sea of human infrastructure. Using cameras and fur traps can help researchers identify and enumerate just exactly how many leopards are left, and how genetically diverse the population is. When I ask Song Dazhao and Dr. Feng what the main obstacle is in protecting the cats, they both reply: “No data”. Despite their titanic efforts, the dearth of data — a result of a lack of money, people, time, and the harsh habitat the leopards prefer — has left researchers struggling, adrift with minimal information on a quest to answer large, looming, and vital questions.
Where Are China’s Leopards?
The question “how many leopards are there in China?” is interestingly weighed down by controversy. The lack of data makes a solid number impossible to pin down. Now the controversy lies in a secondary reading of the same question: how many leopard species are there? The answer, most agree, is one: Panther a par dusjap on en sis. But there are four sub-species that have been described: according to the mainstream view, along with the North- Chinese leopard there exists Panther a pa rd us oriental is (Amur leopard ), Panther a pa rd us del a co uri( IndoChinese leopard ), and Panther a par du sf us ca( Indian leopard).
Back in Beijing, I visit the “cat family” at their CFCA office in the Tongzhou District to dig a little deeper. I am flipping through a folder with many photographs from past camera trap campaigns. Some are slightly blurred, some taken from a distance, and a few decidedly perfect almost as if they were posed. I chose one of the blurry images. It looks old, and it has a feeling like it has a story behind it. Showing it to Song Dazhao, he confirms this, telling me that this picture is actually one of the earliest taken of a live leopard, and the only one they have of the Indian leopard. It is surprisingly not that old, taken in 2007 in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province by a camera trap set up by Dr. Feng.
It was an important picture. Since Dr. Feng captured this image, a heightened research effort was made in the forests of Xishuangbanna. It became a new focal point for him and the team, and many infrared cameras were set up in hopes of finding another. It was not until 2016, almost a decade after the first was captured on film, that they finally captured a second Indian leopard. A decade of intense effort resulted in a single, blurry photo. In a distant nature reserve at southwest of Xishuangbanna, another camera has offered intrigue and hope, capturing multiple leopards over the past few years. This is exciting for multiple reasons, particularly because it gives biologists hope that not only are leopards present, but
that they have a functioning and stable population. They are not just passing through while they search for a new home — they have already found it.
Since falling for the leopards I have spent much time reading about their ecology, particularly the several papers published by Dr. Feng. I learned that his current focus is on Amur leopards in the Jilin and eastern Heilongjiang provinces. These are some of those blank spots on the leopard map, regions where they know leopards exist but have little actual hard evidence. With his intensity and time spent in the field, he has translated his love for leopards into tangible, on the ground results. By continually increasing the land covered by their cameras and their fur traps, and publishing and speaking publicly as much as he can, he has become the voice for these reclusive animals.
The work of Dr. Feng and his team, along with the tireless efforts of the CFCA, has paid off: in 2015, Dr. Feng published the first population estimate for the Amur leopard, and released it not only into the scientific literature but to the general media. There are, they presented, 42 individuals in China. Perilously low, his work confirmed that this sub-species was endangered, and forced the discussion of not only protecting the leopard itself, but also protecting their territory itself. The news is, reassuringly, not all bad: it was only 10 years ago, near the time when he took that first and unexpected leopard image that the population estimate was between 25 and 35 individuals. While this number was unnerving, when published the world’s biologists had a different reaction: they could not believe that there were so many. Though they knew the species was on the precipice of extinction, they were at the same time excited at the prospect that their worst nightmares were not, yet, coming true. This most recent update by Dr. Feng, increasing the Amur leopard population by 10 to 20 individuals, gives momentum to the need, and urgency, of protecting this population. Because even though their population seems to be slowly climbing higher, these 42 Amur leopards are all the world has left.
The Chinese government is listening. In response, they stepped up and are working to establish the Amur Tiger and Leopard National Park. This park, it is hoped, will protect by law a permanent home for this growing population of leopards.
With the help of my new friends at the CFCA, I contact Dr. Feng directly. Walking into his office on an unseasonably brisk spring day, I notice a map detailing the habitat range of the Amur leopard. Taking off my coat and placing it on an unused chair, I walk to the opposite wall and gaze at the map. Dr. Feng joins me, smiling. “This map,” he tells me, “is the outcome of untold hours in the field”. The data they have accumulated has been turned into this one simple, yet profoundly important map. “This is where the leopards are,” he muses. I notice also that the map is decorated with printed pictured of leopards. I start counting pictures but am immediately cut off: “Forty-two. There are 42 pictures. Every leopard is here. Every single one.” I sense the revere in his words: every single one. But they are also laced with worry; “every single one” also means “this is all we have left”. Recently, top American academic journal Science visited Dr. Feng’s lab to interview him and his team. When asked what their work had accomplished, he replied: “we are piece by piece revealing the secret world of the Amur leopard, for the first time.”
In recent years, the dedicated workers and volunteers with the CFCA have taken their extensive experience of working in the Taihang Mountains and spread throughout China — Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet Autonomous Region — in search of leopards. Covering northern deciduous broad-leaved forests to tropical montane forests, the Hengduan Mountains to the Qinghai-tibet Plateau, the “cat family” has recorded 10 of the 12 species of cat — not just leopards — known to be there, providing necessary background information to conduct further research.
In 2013, Song Dazhao saw for the first time beautiful images of leopards taken in an unexpected place, the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. The pictures caught him off guard: the leopards he normally encountered lived in rich deciduous forests. These images were of the same species, but in a distinctly different ecosystem. Averaging 2,000 meters above sea level, this region of
Sichuan Province is strictly coniferous, and instead of being rich with species like the normal leopard habitat, this area is instead rich with canyons and jagged topography. These leopards were living in completely unique habitats. Discussing this with Dr. Li Sheng and Dr. Wen Cheng from Peking University, Song Dazhao learned that they themselves had seen traces of leopards in Ganzi more than 10 years ago.
After only a short survey they had all the evidence they needed: the leopards were there.
In 2015, two years after meeting with Dr. Wen and Dr. Li in their Peking University offices, with the help of the rest of the CFCA team, Song Dazhao obtained permission from the Ganzi County Forestry Bureau to conduct a ground survey. They set up a 16-square-kilometer grid and installed infrared cameras throughout, covering a vast area of potential leopard habitat. A few months later, with the help of the forestry bureau, they returned and collected their cameras. Inside each was a memory card that was, they hoped, full of leopards. To their delight, when they finally returned to their office and loaded the cards onto their computer, they were rewarded with friendly fur-filled faces of leopards. They were able to identify more than 10 unique individuals — 10 separate leopards that were co-existing in this relatively small patch of newly discovered leopard habitat.
This survey and these cameras provided something more important than just pictures. The random capture of images and the pattern of where and when leopards were captured showed that not only were the leopards there, but they seemed to be found continuously throughout the entire study plot: the leopards were using the whole habitat. It was not a fluke sighting or a random lost individual; this was leopard land. And leopards were not the only animals captured by their cameras. Wild boar and a range of ungulates — all prey for the leopard — were found in great abundance. Though the field work was arduous, the task was simple: taking pictures. And, in the end, this simple task has helped not only discover, but more importantly understand, the world of the leopard.
Impressively, in Xinlong County, Sichuan Province, another leopard was found at almost 4,500 meters above sea level. This, by all known accounts, is unheard of: at this elevation, it becomes snow leopard country. It is all a consequence of geography. At this elevation not only are the forests thinner and less diverse, but here the land turns from montane forest to alpine tundra. In the spring of 2016, a camera placed on one of these alpine ridges captured a female snow leopard ( Pantherauncia ), followed
by two of her cubs. In the nearby Ganzi region of Sichuan, their cameras have captured both Amur and snow leopards sharing the same territory. It seems that, unexpectedly, the ranges of these two species overlap. Snow leopard country is also leopard country.
Taxonomically, both species are felines, from the family Felidae, a grouping of cats that includes tigers, jaguars, lions, as well as true leopards and the snow leopard. Sharing the same “Panthera” genus, of this group the snow leopard and the leopards are most closely related.
Ecologically it makes sense that their range — as well as a host of their ecological needs, their “niches” — are to some degree shared. Notable morphological differences have, however, evolved. Particularly obvious is coat color, with the snow leopard taking on a more snow-friendly white-grey hue compared to the more striking yellow and brown of the normally forest-bound leopards. In recent years a lot of attention has been given to these rare and endangered snow leopards, and the CFCA — showing they are truly a “cat family” — is intent on making their work benefit all wild cats, snow bound or forest bound. Not only is their work spreading out over geographical area, it is widening to include all imperiled cats.
As their habitats are shared, you can’t help one without understanding the other.
Hopes and Challenges: Guardians of the Chinese Leopards
A girl volunteering with the CFCA, nicknamed “Koala”, spoke to me about her hopes for the leopards: “I hope the government can build a large area of more than 1,000 square kilometers of nature reserve. I hope the land of the leopard can be protected with real and active enforcement, with strict regulations. I hope that managers can help to build this region into a good, stable habitat for these cats, giving them a place where they can live alongside their prey. I hope the ecosystem can be protected. And, I hope that people learn to respect and love and be aware of the beauty and importance of these leopards, and build a strong and sustainable ecotourism industry to help the villagers…”
It is a long list of hopes that streams out of Koala’s mouth. Filled with passion, they are not empty. They are real. But when pressed, she admits limitations to her hopes: “We are a small organization, built of volunteers. We need to know more before we can properly protect these animals. It’s embarrassing, really. Compared to the giant panda — an animal saturated with research and of which we know almost everything — leopards remain unknown. Even their most basic information is only slowly trickling in, despite our endless work. But we need to act before it is too late. Saving this parcel of land, the Taihang Mountains, is an essential first step. They need somewhere to live.”
Back in the city, under the neon lights of the never- sleeping streets of Beijing, I look around and see artifacts of our culture. Sports apparel, car brands, team logos, and everything in between bear the mark of the leopard — it is a part of the city and the culture. But these leopards are not a part of people’s reality; they seem as though they are ghosts, ethereal particles that they will never see. They are untouchable. They exist nowhere but on film, and on the hoods of our cars. Do people know of the real leopards, struggling to survive in the mountains? Do people know that leopards still live among them?
In 1968, naturalist Maitland Edey wrote of the mighty leopard: “He is an animal of darkness, and even in the dark he travels alone”. Moved by these words, in 1972 eminent zoologist George Schaller quoted Edey’s line in his influential book These rengetilion . I, too, just now, used this line in place of my own. There is no better way to summate the life of the leopard. Sifting through the thousands of pictures in Song Dazhao’s office, I am continuously struck by their beauty and by their plight — they face challenges that can, at times, seem insurmountable. But, with the “cat family” and the growing list of passionate and dedicated researchers and volunteers, no matter how remote and how silent, they will never again have to struggle alone.
On a day in April 2016, Huang Qiaowen (left) and Song Dazhao (center), members of the Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance (CFCA), are checking images captured by their infrared camera traps, with Wei Shuanbing, a member of the“old Leopard Team.” Photo/ Liu Min
Cui Shiming, whose job mainly focuses on fieldwork, is a man with excellent physical qualities. Also, his vast knowledge of botany, insects, herpetology, ornithology and mammals makes him ideal for this job.
Huang Qiaowen is lucky to find a pile of leopard feces, the indicator of its territory, activity time, food structure and even health condition.
Wan Shaoping, the leader of CFCA, was a company’s senior manager, and also an experienced birdwatcher, before he joined the group. He is now the planner of CFCA’S programs, the“diplomat”and the driver.
Wu Zhanzhao, or“xiao Zhao,”formerly worked at an advertising company. A great fan of cats, she joined CFCA as a product designer.
Current Area for Protecting North-chinese Leopards
Nowadays, leopards find fewer and fewer prey in their traditional territories; hence, they have transferred their hunting grounds to human settlements, such as villages. Every year, from April to August, reports of leopard attacks on livestock are frequently heard. Without proper compensation, villagers take actions for revenge, such as poisoning. To avoid this, a volunteer team named“old Leopard,”consisting of five local villagers and forest rangers, was formed to assess the level of loss and access compensation from CFCA.
Walking silently in the snow, like a king, M2 was captured in January 2016 while patrolling his territory. In his 300 square kilometer kingdom, M2 has newborn “princes”and“princesses”every year. Like all large predators, leopards need intact forest as habitat to provide enough prey. In the Taihang Mountains, agile roe deer, fierce wild boars and even cunning foxes are all on a leopard’s menu.
Song Dazhao, the man in charge of CFCA’S Leopard Program, was once an employee of an information technology company. In 2008, he quit his job and devoted all his time to investigating North-chinese leopards. He was also one of the founders of the CFCA.
Lacking of data and references, researchers are not able to draw maps revealing the accurate distribution of China’s leopards. This map indicates all the areas and locations where leopards were sighted or photographed in the recent ten years. Generally, researchers agree that there are four leopard subspecies living in China, but the exact boundaries between their habitats are merely deductive. Map data/ Feng Limin
Huang Qiaowen, a young member of CFCA, is now in charge of CFCA’S expansion and funding. Like her colleagues, she was neither a biologist nor a naturalist, but was on staff at a magazine. The wilderness is full of surprises: in Xinlong County of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan, fate brings her an encounter with a blue sheep.
Based on latest research, the distribution of China’s Amur leopard has been updated. This map provides a reference for building a national park aimed at protecting the Siberian tiger, Amur leopard and their habitat. Map/ Feng Limin
In 2010, an Amur leopard, a subspecies that was believed to be extinct in China, was photographed in the forest of Hunchun, Jilin, by researchers from Beijing Normal University. Fieldwork & Photo/ Feng Limin
In the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, an infrared camera trap set in a hole in a tree has provided plenty of valuable images, including large ungulates, leopards and CFCA members themselves. Photo/ Forestry Bureau of Xinlong County
In the Hengduan Mountains, a range in western Sichuan, a leopard rests on a glade high up along a ridge. From this angle, we can hardly tell which subspecies it belongs to, but this photo is precious — it shows that leopards move to the upper edges of the forest zone, meaning that not even the towering Hengduan Mountain range and discontinuous forests can stop their migration. Their ability to survive in shrinking habitats is beyond our imagination. Photo/ Forestry Bureau of Xinlong County