Where Have the Chi­nese leop­ards Gone?

China Scenic - - Contents - By Yu Muwen Pho­to­graphs & Maps by Chi­nese Felid Con­ser­va­tion Al­liance, and as cred­ited

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.