Stephanie V. Sears

Leopards in China: The wild card

Several years ago I embraced the cause of the Asiatic common leopard and as a freelance journalist I headed toward the northeastern region of Jilin in China which is, at present, the leopard’s best hope of survival in China. Unlike Patagonia, the Russian Altai or Costa Rica, China does not spring to mind as an ecologically friendly destination. Nor does one relate a large wide-ranging carnivore like Panthera pardus to the most populated country in the world, unless the animal is to be found cut up in parts for medicinal, decorative or sartorial purposes. Surprisingly, the big cat has survived in this heavily industrialized country, hostage to its vast human population and severe environmental problems. The survival of the leopard in China is a testimony to this cat’s remarkable ability to survive.
        The seven-hour fast-train ride from Beijing to Changchun, capital of Jilin Province, reveals a flat, irresolute landscape, never quite weaned from urban/industrial domination and its spoliation of nature. Agricultural strips alternate with ‘brown field’ zones. Beyond, in every direction, high-rise housing, ever in the process of going up, casts menacing Mordor-like shadows over the ‘countryside’. It reflects China’s on-going real-estate boom bolstered by the improved buying power and desire of the Chinese people to acquire private property.
        In this dismal panorama there are, however, signs of an ongoing change. With noticeable frequency, a number of ‘brown fields’ whizzing by the train rails have been or are in the process of being reforested.
        In Changchun I am greeted by a frosty wind and a toad-colored fog erasing the outlines of the city: a typical sandstorm that might be coming from any of the regions in North China subjected to aeolian desertification. The wind, mixing sand with industrial pollution, fills the air with particulate matter scientifically named PM10 (or if less than 25 micrometers: PM25). The risk of lung damage has become common throughout most of China. The hotel management hands me the type of surgical mask I’ve seen Chinese people wear frequently. Breathing has apparently not become easier since my last visit to the mainland sixteen years ago; during the drive from the airport to Shanghai’s center. I had then found myself gasping for oxygen whether the taxi windows were open or shut.
        Yet environmental concern in China has been brought to the fore. Not far from Changchun, in the best-preserved and most extensive forest in China, the government has recently officialized a 15000 square kilometer national park astride the provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin adjoining Russia and North Korea.  The park will primarily benefit the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) and tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), allowing these big cats to circulate freely between Russia and China as double nationals. Wildlife enthusiasts wants to keep it wild, and an international collaboration such as this appears to be an ideal solution to increase the size of a protected area. Juxtaposition to the Russian ‘Land of the Leopard Park’ greatly improves the chances of survival for the endangered cats. Joint ecological action between countries also suggests something of a shared culture, which may contribute to improved overall cross-boundary relations. The area chosen to be the tiger and leopard park based on ten years of consistent camera–trapping, has confirmed the presence of forty-two leopards, (the gender ratio being seven to eight males for forty females).

A few days earlier, in Beijing, I met Dr. Feng Limin, Associate Professor at the Beijing Normal University, and directing force behind the research and monitoring of leopards in the northeast. With vivacity and driving optimism he seemed to embody what I have come to see as China’s capacity to do a quick turnabout from previous policies when deemed necessary.  I had derived from him a keen sense that conservation of the Sino-Russian Amur leopard was going to be a success.
        Collaboration between Russian and Chinese scientists has become normalized through a yearly workshop during which the more experienced Russians in matters of Amur leopard and Tiger research, act as guides to the Chinese researchers, who willingly acknowledge their beginner’s status regarding big cat conservation. Since the end of the twentieth-century efforts to increase and stabilize a leopard population in the region have led the Chinese government to take steps to preserve primary forest and return some farmland and grassland to woodland. As a result, forest land has increased by some 165,414 hectares, contributing to the region’s Green Great Wall plan against desertification and floods.
       Such radical changes in environmental policy, along with the plan to create 24 additional national parks throughout the country, signify that wildlife conservation has become a priority for the Chinese government, according to Aimin Wang, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society/(WCS) China. Beyond the focus on the northeastern leopard, a population that conservationists hope to see double by 2020, the policy shift will benefit other smaller leopard populations known in China. Though Dr. Wang admits that poaching and the manufacture of illicit medicinal products are not entirely eradicated from China, their slowdown has positioned China favorably compared to other Asian countries such as Thailand.
        The quality of protected areas determines whether conservation will be a success or a failure, specifies Dr. Kong of the Jilin Provincial Academy of Forestry Science. Ungulates in China thrive on Korean pine. Wild boar, Sika, and Red deer need oak. Their prospering ultimately benefits the leopards that prey on them. Other leopard prey such as the wild Gaur, will have to be reintroduced in China, or officially protected, like the oft-hunted Roe deer.  My faith in the new environmental measures taken by China meets with Dr. Kong’s more measured assessment of the future.  He wants things to move faster. The large tiger and leopard park is indeed a great step forward but only if preservation can be sustained. The necessary funds for the project, secured by way of the real-estate boom,  create a yin and yang dilemma where land is preserved thanks to money earned by wrecking nature elsewhere.  Indeed, one can only wonder how in a country of 1.4 billion people, (the statistic inexorably ticking upward), an enduring solution for wildlife can be found.  How, precisely, can building on land to shelter a relentlessly growing population guarantee the permanent conservation of land elsewhere in the country? How long can such a balancing act endure?
        Hunchun is three and a half hours away by train from Changchun and the panorama flashing by shows, this time, many seemingly untouched forest patches. Previously informed that Hunchun was small, I am expecting a village at the fringe of the forest.  In fact, it is a fast-growing town of broad avenues, inhabited by 200,000 people reliant primarily on its natural resources for income.  Still, a feeling of wilderness lingers nearby. Russia and North Korea are, respectively, twenty and forty kilometers away. With the Land of the leopard Park on the Russian side and the unknown of North Korea’s wildlife the leopard may have a real fighting chance here.

Ren Yi, director of WCS/Hunchun, drives me to the Nature Reserve of Hunchun established in 2001. While he and his colleagues verify the camera traps I look around at the type of habitat that leopard and tiger may be roaming through at this moment. It is the same kind of Manchurian forest I have seen on the Russian side: well-watered slim, tight woods, vividly green in this month of May. Sunlight plays a subtle hide and seek where one can easily imagine the spotted coat of the Amur leopard invisibly slipping by. Fourteen leopards in a 1000 square kilometer area have been camera-trapped here recently, against eight to eleven in 2012. The camera traps, typically placed in pairs facing each other, at 45-50 centimeters above ground, every three to four kilometers on average – have captured no leopard this time.  Perhaps this edge of the forest, regularly frequented by Hunchun locals, is not a leopard’s favorite haunt.
        Russian field scientists have taught their Chinese colleagues one of their tricks to get leopards in the camera frame:  a piece of aluminum foil is left on a log placed in front of the camera (leopards like to step on logs) so as to draw the cat’s attention. The cat then typically investigates the shiny object on the log and is photo-trapped. The anecdote encourages me to draw from my pocket a bottle of a famous men’s cologne that is reportedly used by feline specialists to attract big cats into view when in the field.  I spray it on neighboring tree trunks under the doubtful eye of my companions. But previous use on captive tigers and leopards has proved it to be irresistible.
        Is it utopian to hope that such idiosyncratic practices based on close animal observation, foretell a new quality of relationship with wildlife? One closer and more attentive to a wild animal’s individuality?
        Another consideration which, increasingly, must be concomitant with nature conservation, is human population size. How many people and how many wild animals can satisfactorily coexist, and for how long? Despite China’s outlawing of poaching, Ren Yi informs me that people gather pine nuts in the forest (thus competing for food with ungulates)  but also place traps to catch smaller animals, in which leopards occasionally get caught.  The urban limits of the expanding tri-lingual Hunchun are coming ever closer to the park boundaries. Destined to become a trade center for the three neighboring countries, (or four, including South Korea) Hunchun’s growth portends added pressure on the nature reserve.
        The Amur leopard population over-flowing from Russia into China does not constitute the only leopard presence in the country. The north Chinese leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis), or ‘golden coin leopard’, a nickname alluding to darker rosettes, survives as a small group of some fifteen individuals on a small terraced area of the Taihang Mountains west of Beijing. Here, perhaps more so than elsewhere, one wonders how long they will resist the incursion of new roads and a highway linking this formerly isolated region to the rest of China.

Second only to the Amur leopards in terms of conservation priority is a surviving group of leopards in the northern Sichuan region of Ganzi, and possibly also in the south of the province, according to  wildlife cameraman and collaborator of WWF and The Nature Conservancy, Zang Ming. Though the animal’s presence has been known to local rural people for some time, its occurrence in this region comes as a general surprise to a country that, in the last decades, has been concentrated on modernizing and expanding its economy to the detriment of nature.
        Of the four common leopard species traditionally found, and hoped to be still found in China, this particular group, long isolated from other leopard species, would be either PP delacouri or PP fusca, according to Zang. Found living at high altitudes of 2500 to 4000 meters, the leopard has been caught on camera, sharing the same region of Qinghai, in northern Sichuan, with the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Such an overlap of common leopard with snow leopard has been found in other parts of the world. A plausible assumption, in this case, is that leopards have sought refuge from human encroachment at higher than normal altitudes, taking advantage of warmer temperatures and a higher tree line. Though mating may take place between the two species, the probability of offspring, is very low, in Zang’s opinion. But an increase in their population would make the existing territory insufficient, thereby exposing a characteristic dilemma in today’s wildlife preservation: where to put the added wildlife if conservation succeeds?
        The most effective solution to this problem, for both humans and wildlife, resides in creating a system of nature corridors. In view of the current modest number of leopards in the whole country, Zang thinks that such outlets would allow isolated leopard populations to grow without much risk of miscegenation with other leopard species.  No formal nature corridors exist between China and its fourteen international frontiers according to him, save for the new tiger and leopard Park linking up with the Russian Land of the Leopard Park.
        Elsewhere in the country leopard presence remains a mystery. No statistics are yet available indicating a total leopard number in China.  A map of sightings across China given in the report ‘The Current distribution and Status of leopards Panthera pardus in China’ published in October 2015 in Oryx-The International Journal of Conservation,  shows sporadic, unverified sightings near the south coast and confirmed sightings principally nearer to Nepalese, Bhutanese, Burmese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Russian and North Korean borders, along a northeast to west/southwest arc across China.  The map also shows how the historical leopard distribution,   once comprising some three-quarters of the country, has shrunk over the years.
        The Wakhan corridor between Afghanistan and China, a sparsely populated area, with little road traffic culminating at 4923 meters, and Vietnam’s Golgong mountains near the Chinese border may serve as effective though informal corridors for wildlife. The main obstacle to the creation of nature corridors is widespread and dense urbanization. Even if the solitary and evanescent leopard, unbeknownst to the human eye, manages to cross frontiers, official trans-national corridors would bolster China’s planned park system and on-going efforts to preserve and reconstitute its wildlife. If leopard numbers in China continue to rise, corridors will improve the chances of avoiding human/leopard conflicts as presently witnessed in India due to human density and urban sprawl. 

Zang Ming gave up his work at a large Chinese bank to become a naturalist and cameraman. Both he and his friend and colleague Luo Nei Qian personify a new Chinese passion and concern for national wildlife. This outspoken concern from the country’s people is in part responsible for putting pressure on the State to prioritize nature preservation and take strong measures to improve the environment. Yet the question remains: will those measures be sufficient to allow for the sustainable survival of the big cat?
        With 19% of the world’s population, China is a microcosm of what the whole world is about to face in its efforts to conserve wildlife. Reality compels us to ask a few unsettling questions: Can we honestly speak of saving wildlife while we, as a species continue to multiply in overwhelming numbers that continue to intrude upon remaining wild habitat? Is human expansion and interference with nature a moral right? Before answering such questions, let us first consider some facts. Only two hundred years ago, we, as a species, represented a mere 10-12% of the earth’s total mammal mass.  We now monopolize 96% to 98% of that mass, the rest of living mammals representing therefore a mere 4% to 2% according to an article by Russell McLendon in Mother Nature Network of October 2016: ‘11 startling statistics about earth’s disappearing wildlife’. According to the same article, over 3000 animal species are now considered critically endangered and a 58% decline in wild vertebrates since 1970 may reach 67% by 2020. An estimated 240 acres of wilderness are destroyed every hour according to Kelvin Thompson in his study ‘The impact of population growth on wildlife’ published in 2011 by Population Media Center. The statistical arc of human population growth fits neatly over the statistical arc of animal extinction. The prognosis for the world’s human population by 2030 is 8.5 billion, 9.7 billion by 2050.
        China had a 1.3 billion population in 2008 on the basis of a one child policy begun in 1979 but which encountered some opposition. Since 2015 the one child policy has been abandoned to guard against an aging population, and possibly in reaction to accusations of ethics abuses. Consequently, birthrate increased by 7.9% in 2016, a rate inferior to what the government was hoping for, yet nonetheless leading to an expected population of 1.42 billion by 2020.
        Despite global and heightened environmental awareness, such statistics imply that   wildlife remains secondary to what we consider to be our innate precedence. When human and wildlife conflicts occur, as they do increasingly in buffer areas, communal woods, suburban and urban zones, they are often seen to be caused by the ‘bad behavior’ or illicit presence of the wild animal. For the survivalist leopard this has become frequent in India where they are removed and relocated, or killed, sometimes in cruel circumstances.
        The anthropocentric spirituality of the West and Middle East gives man priority over the animal and though man is instructed to be a compassionate steward of nature he is by the same token encouraged to dominate the rest of creation. It was not always the case in the West. The Greek mathematician and vegetarian Pythagoras believed in the transmigration of souls and in equality between man and animal, and such thinking converged with Eastern philosophy and with more ancient beliefs such as animism, Celtic or East Asian. ‘Chinese Folk religion’, referring to an aggregate of ancient animism and Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, was made official in China at the turn of this century.  After a previous attempt to condemn it as superstition, the syncretic religion was defined as ‘intangible heritage’ and now rallies some 80% of Chinese people across the world.  It could well serve as a foundation for less destructive and more harmonious relations with wildlife in China.

 In fact, Chinese tradition has long established character and status equivalences between animals and men. The leopard was the emblem (hsiang) of fierce bravery in battle, worn as a badge by military officials of third rank. Also, associated with the magpie, the leopard (and the tiger) was a symbol of good luck.
        In the West, in the wake of Pythagoras and later of Saint Francis of Assisi, the seeds of a change of attitude within Christianity were sown, and developed by the eighteenth-nineteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bertham for whom an animal’s evident capacity to suffer was proof of his ethical equality to a human being. In 1824 this type of thinking became formal with Arthur Broome’s creation of the SPCA in England (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and later, in 1980, with PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals). Animal rights have since been further advanced by the likes of Peter Singer, Australian author of ‘Animal liberation’ (1975), the American philosopher Tom Regan, author of ‘The case for animal rights’(2004) and by Andrew Linzey, British theologian and founder of ‘The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics’. Such a philosophical evolution allied to scientific progress in wildlife preservation, seem, gradually, to bring us closer to our ideal of the garden of Eden in which all species live in mutual harmony.
        For their part, some animals like moose, puma, bear, coyote, leopard and many others, seem to have already taken steps in that direction by adapting to suburban and urban areas. But what, one might wonder, can these animals ‘think’ of their new environment, when straying near an airport or into the subway of a big city?  Has adaptation to a human way of life begun to make wild animals less than wild, or ‘semi-wild’ as Monika Fiby notes in ‘The future of wild animals’(2012 The very idea that tigers in some areas are already semi-wild through frequent contact with humans is a repulsive one; not only from a deontological point of view of an animal’s right to his natural surroundings, but also from a deeply aesthetic, and, admittedly, human point of view. Adaptation to human proximity eventually leads to physical changes in a wild animal: a loss of sexual dimorphism, a reduction of tooth and brain size, a slower development from infancy to adulthood….Is it ultimately to our advantage to reduce an elusive predator like the common leopard (or any big cat for that matter) to the status of an alley cat haunting our suburbs? From a climatic and immunological point of view, it is now well established that the greater the biodiversity around us the better humans fare.
        Yet it is perhaps the more intangible cultural attributes we confer on nature and its most beautiful and secretive inhabitants, such as the leopard, that are most crucial to us and capable of filling a human existential void. The leopard has long enchanted our nature with essential notions of freedom, beauty, and mystery. I, myself, have walked in forests where big cats still roam and the unparalleled thrill is akin to walking through a fairytale. Therefore, it is perhaps the stealthy presence and unhampered wandering of the leopard that will contribute to China ’s recovery from an overwrought anthropocentric environment, elevating the feline once more to his status of living symbol in China; but this time he will symbolize China’s capacity for self-reassessment and perseverance in regaining the full splendor of its culture.



Stephanie V. Sears is a French and American ethnologist, free-lance journalist and essayist who has previously been published, on the subject of nature conservation and wildlife, in E, The Environmental Magazine, Insula(UNESCO), CerisePress, The Montreal Review, Wildlifeextra, Zoomorphic.

Image provided by daddyboskeazy is a derivative of leopard_print_background used under CC BY 2.0.