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Clawing Back

After intensive conservation efforts, China’s native leopard is slowly regaining ground, but lack of animal corridors across its extensive but fragmented habitat continues to pose a major threat

By Yu Xiaodong , Zhang Xinyu Updated Jul.1

A North China leopard is photographed by an infrared camera, Heshun County, Shanxi Province (Photo by the Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance)

On February 16, North China’s Shanxi Province released a new wildlife conservation plan for 2023 to 2035. In it, the Shanxi government pledged to promote ecosystem restoration and to focus on restoring the North China leopard population by building drinking water points, ecological corridors and other relevant projects.  

This is the first provincial conservation plan aiming to protect the North China leopard and among the first to focus on the top predator in China. While scientists and activists welcome the move, some argue that conservation efforts at the national level are necessary to secure the species’ future.  

China is home to three out of the nine subspecies of leopard: the North China leopard, Amur leopard and Indochinese leopard. Among them, the North China leopard, also known as the Chinese leopard, is most widely spread and endemic to China.  

Their habitat once stretched throughout northern and western China. But starting in the mid-20th century, rampant hunting and deforestation pushed them to the verge of extinction. They are now listed as a national first-class protected animal in China. 

Revival in Numbers 
Since 2000, sightings of the leopard have increased across northern and western China, including the provinces of Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Sichuan, and the autonomous regions of Ningxia and Tibet, indicating the big cat is making a comeback.  

The species attracted serious attention from researchers and local governments after 2010, which launched several projects to monitor and protect the elusive big cat. “We can see that populations of leopards in some key areas are quickly bouncing back,” Feng Limin, an associate professor at Beijing Normal University who researches China’s leopards and tigers, told NewsChina.  

According to Feng, native leopards have made a strong comeback on the Loess Plateau, which covers parts of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces in North and Northwest China.  

Feng co-authored a study conducted by Beijing Normal University and the University of Copenhagen that surveyed an 800-square-kilometer forest area between Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Publishing its findings in August 2022, the team found that the counts of leopards in the area increased from 88 in 2016 to 110 in 2017, a 25 percent increase.  

In Heshun County, Shanxi Province, a heavily forested area surrounded by mountains, the number of leopards almost doubled from 45 at the end of 2021 to 89 at the end of 2022. Heshun is the first county to conduct a leopard population survey, installing 300 infrared wildlife cameras.  

Other successful areas include Liupanshan National Nature Reserve in Ningxia, which researchers estimate is home to about 35 to 40 leopards. Leopards have also reappeared in Tuoliang National Nature Reserve in Hebei Province, just 300 kilometers away from Beijing. In total, it is estimated that there are now about 400 North China leopards living in the wild.  

According to Feng, a major reason behind the revival is China’s rapid urbanization, which led to hundreds of thousands of rural residents migrating to cities. This reduces human activity in forest and mountain areas and allows ecosystems and wildlife populations to recover.  

Moreover, China has launched initiatives since 2000 to reforest large tracts of land in northern and northwestern China. In 2013, the Chinese government launched projects to restore biodiversity under the banner of “ecological civilization,” paving the way for the recovery of species including wild boar and roe deer, the leopard’s primary prey. 

A leopard sits in the shade, Hangzhou Zoo, Zhejiang Province, July 16, 2021 (Photo by IC)

Leopard cub specimens are exhibited at an endangered animal protection-themed exhibition held by the National Zoological Museum of China, October 11, 2022 (Photo by IC)

Ecological Corridors 
However, the big cat’s future is far from secure. Under the “50/500 rule,” a guiding principle in conservation for assessing minimum viable population size, at least 50 individuals are required to avoid inbreeding, and 500 are required to reduce genetic drift.  

As the leopard’s total population is estimated to be less than 500 with many local groups below 50, many scientists and activists are calling for ecological corridors to connect the leopard’s fragmented habitats and help the species reclaim their previous territories.  

“The Chinese government recognized the importance of ecological corridors 30 years ago,” Wang Fang, a conversation biologist at Fudan University in Shanghai, told NewsChina.  

To protect its iconic giant panda, China started building ecological corridors in the 1990s to link fragmented habitats across several provinces. Thanks to these efforts and others, the species’ status was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable in 2016 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  

However, the North China leopard has received far less attention. “There is no historical data on the leopard, and we only have three years of data,” Wang said. In the past three years, Wang has conducted surveys of leopard population distribution in Ningxia’s Liupanshan Nature Reserve. This year, he plans to conduct more surveys to find viable locations to establish ecological corridors for the leopard.  

For Wang and other researchers, a major obstacle to setting up ecological corridors in these regions is roads.  

Between 2017 and 2021, at least three leopards were struck and killed by cars in Shanxi and Sichuan provinces. The latest fatality was reported on December 29, 2022, when a young female North China leopard was found dead on the roadside in a hilly section of road near Guyuan, Ningxia.  

Guo Zhihong, deputy director of the management bureau of the Liupanshan Nation Reserve, told NewsChina he believes the young leopard belonged to a family of four that local forest rangers spotted in 2022. Guo said the leopards might have been migrating from the Liupanshen Nature Reserve, about 100 kilometers away.  

As apex predators, leopards are solitary and territorial animals that require a large area to survive. “Currently, the recovery of the leopard is largely limited to protected nature reserves. But as their population continues to grow, they will roam outside them, and that’s where road networks pose a major threat,” Guo said. He called for more efforts on building ecological corridors along existing roads an include such corridors in new road plans where species of wildlife are likely to expand their territories. 

Animal Passages 
In Heshun County in Shanxi, conservationists are also concerned about the threat roads pose to the expanding leopard population. Since 2020, they have been campaigning against upgrading a county road that runs through the leopard’s habitat, arguing that the upgrade would sever it. 
In 2022, the local government agreed to install animal corridors to allow them to cross.  

There have been other successes in China’s infrastructure projects. To minimize the impact of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway on the seasonal migration of the Tibetan antelope, 33 animal corridors were added. The project proved successful, and the IUCN downgraded the species’ status from endangered to “near threatened” on its Red List of Threatened Species in 2021.  

However, experts warn that building corridors for the leopard is far more complicated because it is an apex predator. “Corridors along roads could lead to more human-leopard conflicts,” said Liu Beibei of the Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance (CFCA), a nonprofit organization focused on wildcat conservation.  

If a road is upgraded, the leopards’ movement would be restricted to corridors, which could significantly increase the chances of them running into local farmers and their livestock, which also use these passages.  

Professor Wang Fang points out that corridors could become chokepoints for leopard poachers to set traps or ambushes. Any plans would require a well-designed management system to maintain the passages and monitor their impact on leopards.  

Conservationists hope the new plan in Shanxi, which spotlights the leopard and ecological corridors, will provide new momentum for protecting the only surviving big cat in northern China.  

But for Song Dazhao, founder of the CFCA, a provincial-level plan is simply not enough to tackle the issues surrounding ecological corridors, as they require extensive research and cross-regional cooperation, as well as substantial funding. “Now is the time for a national-level conservation plan for the leopard,” Song said.

A female North China leopard was struck by a car and died, Guyuan, Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, December 29, 2022 (Photo by Guo Zhihong)