Big cats under protection in their natural Xinjiang habitats
By Peng Jiawei  ·  2023-02-20  ·   Source: NO.8 FEBRUARY 23, 2023
The injured snow leopard prior to being transported to a nearby rescue center for professional treatment on January 9, 2022 (CHEN XIAOFENG)

A snow leopard was spotted wandering just outside the safety nets surrounding the Jiangjun Mountain ski resort in Altay, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on Chinese New Year's Eve on January 21. Videos of the big cat on the prowl went viral online, drawing all kinds of witty comments.

Amid these lighthearted remarks, some netizens were calling attention to the protection of this rare animal species. "Humans are the invasive species, not the snow leopard," one commenter wrote.

Ghosts of the mountain

This was not the first time the animal had ventured into human territory. Stories circulating among herders across Xinjiang tell of the mysterious disappearance of their animals in winter, which suggests the seasonal arrival of snow leopards in the human sphere due to a scarcity of wild prey in the cold period.

Known to locals as the "ghosts of the mountain," snow leopards remain largely isolated from humans. The species inhabits one of the harshest environments on Earth, dwelling above the tree line in the cold mountains at the heart of Asia.

There is no exact figure as to how many snow leopards are left across its enormous range in Asia, given the difficulties in collecting precise data on the elusive species. It has been estimated that some 4,000 to 7,000 snow leopards live in the wild, according to the China National Forestry and Grassland Administration. Information from the World Wildlife Fund showed that about half of those are found in China.

With abundant glaciers and snow, Xinjiang presents itself as a natural haven for the animal. Data from the Chinese Academy of Sciences show that about 1,200 snow leopards, or 20 to 30 percent of the entire species, inhabit Xinjiang's various mountain ranges, which include the Tianshan, Altay and Kunlun mountains.

Though sightings are rare, close encounters do occur. On January 9, 2022, a police station in Wushi County in Xinjiang's Aksu Prefecture received an emergency call from a local herder, who had discovered a snow leopard in his sheepfold. Upon arriving at the scene, the police officers were surprised to find the snow leopard lying quietly in a corner of the pen, licking a fresh wound on its right hind leg.

Professionals from the nearest wildlife rescue center were immediately called to the site and, after careful examination of the wound, brought the animal back to the center for treatment before releasing it back into the wild.

The injury, as footage captured by an infrared camera later revealed, occurred when the snow leopard was knocked off a steep ridge by a wild mountain sheep it was hunting.

"When I looked into its eyes, I saw a mixture of fear and despair," Chen Xiaofeng, one of the police officers, told Beijing Review. "That was my first time to grasp how vulnerable the seemingly mighty creature is, and how much it needs our protection."


The country's first footage of the snow leopard, captured near Mount Tomur, one of the four components of the Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on October 25, 2005 (MA MING)

Turning the tide 

Classified as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the snow leopard faces a constant struggle for survival. Major global threats include habitat fragmentation, declines of prey populations, poaching for illegal wildlife trade, and the use of the animal's bones and body parts in traditional Chinese medicine, a centuries-old practice that has been banned.

"There was once a time we thought the species might vanish from the wild, just as the South China tiger did," Ma Ming, a researcher with the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, told Beijing Review. "However, since wildlife conservation in China took off in the early 1980s, decades of joint efforts across all sectors of society have brought the species back from the brink of extinction."

During the 40-plus years of reform and opening up, biodiversity protection has been attached increasing importance. The 1980s saw the gradual formation of a vast network of nature reserves across China, as well as the establishment of Xinjiang's first batch of nature reserves. In 1988, the Wildlife Protection Law was enacted, and the snow leopard was listed as a Class-A protected animal, under the highest level of protection.

Despite an entitlement to state-level protection, the species remained an untapped mystery and only slowly came to public attention as domestic research on it had been stepped up in the 2000s. And that was when Ma entered the scene.

In 2004, Ma joined a newly launched program titled the Xinjiang Snow Leopard Group (XSLG) to lead the country's first comprehensive survey of wild snow leopards, thus embarking on a long journey through Xinjiang's vast and varied landscapes in search of the mysterious cat.

The XSLG expeditions, as it turned out, were fraught with trials and suffering. On top of constant blisters and injuries, occasional falls through thin ice and frigid nights spent in makeshift mountain huts, Ma and his colleagues had to endure the bleak futility of their search. Going months without progress, they often relied on indirect evidence, such as local tales, for even the slightest traces of the animal's existence.

However, all things come to those who wait. On October 25, 2005, an infrared camera trap that the team had previously installed near Mount Tomur, a 7,439-meter peak in the Tianshan Mountains, captured the country's first footage of the animal. Using infrared rays to sense the passage of wildlife and identify individuals by their markings, infrared camera traps allow scientists to observe the cat without much human interference. Over the next few years, hundreds of infrared cameras were installed across Xinjiang, covering 150 transects totaling 190 square km. Silently watching over the region's vast stretches of land, these cameras testify to China's entry into a new phase of technology-powered wildlife research.

These field surveys also exposed the dark underbelly of this seeming haven—an underworld rife with trafficking in snow leopard products. This helped accelerate strict governmental crackdown on this crime. In 2006, a ban was also issued on the use of leopard bones in traditional Chinese medicine.

"Our hard work has paid off," Ma said. "The domestic population of the species has been slowly increasing over the past two decades. It is another successful case of biodiversity conservation after the giant panda." IUCN has downgraded the threat status of both the panda and snow leopard from "endangered" to "vulnerable" in recent years.

The bigger picture 

It is the story of an almost-lost species that has come back, thanks for the combined efforts of the government and the people who have been dedicated to protecting it.

As of 2021, Xinjiang had 222 protected areas covering a total area of 25.8 million hectares, which form a complex ecological network of forests, wetlands, deserts and water bodies, where 733 kinds of vertebrates reside.

Yet the story does not end here, as many threats, such as habitat loss caused by global warming and clashes between humans and the species, still exist. "As a top predator and a leading player in controlling the populations of its prey species, the snow leopard is an indicator species of the health of the entire ecosystem," Ma said. "More efforts need to be invested in protecting the species and conserving the biodiversity in the broader eco-regions," he concluded.

(Print edition title: Paw Prints in the Snow)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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