If you step into the stillness of the snowy pine forests, where China meets Far East Russia and the mighty Amur river flows into the Sea of Japan, do not expect an encounter with Panthera pardus orientalis. A sika deer or two, elk, and even with a bit of luck, wild boar may cross your path – but never the Amur leopard. It’s as elusive as it is rare. Only 70 remain in the wild – the world’s rarest wild feline. Even conservationists who’ve spent years working with them count themselves lucky if they get to see so much as a paw print, or the site of a kill. The cats themselves will never be seen, except on occasional camera trap footage.
It is just possible though, you’ve seen this beautiful animal in a zoo. There are around 200 in zoos’ captive breeding programs – still a perilously small population. This leopard will not be coming off IUCN‘s Red List any time soon.
The good news
But now there is great news. Just last month China approved a new national park for the Amur leopard, and its almost equally rare cousin, the Amur (Siberian) tiger.
The two carnivores have seen illegal logging shrink their habitat, and numbers of their prey of preference, elk and deer, dwindle as a result of poaching. There have even been reports of tigers hungry enough to stray into residential areas taking dogs and cattle.
This is Amur-Heilong, home of the Amur leopard and the Amur tiger, an area as big as Alaska straddling the border of two of the world’s greatest nations, China and Russia
A few facts about this exciting new national park in Chinese Amur-Heilong
- At 5,637 square miles, it will be 60 percent bigger than Yellowstone National Park
- Communities and factories within the new national park area will be relocated, to avoid conflicts between wildlife and humans
- At its heart will be a centre for monitoring, research and rescue of the big cats
- The park will be completed by 2020
Talk conservation, and China has scarcely been a country that leaps to mind. We are much more likely to think of the millions flocking from rural villages for a new life in rapidly growing industrial cities.
Or China’s incredible production levels: as in Qiaotou the ‘button capital of the world’, churning out 15 billion buttons and 200 million meters of zippers a year. Or one worker on his/her own racking up – what surely is not humanly possible – 80,000 umbrellas a year.
Or the spectacle of an entire city’s population scurrying about their business in face masks, hoping this won’t be the year they become one of the three quarters of a million who will die prematurely, the result of the country’s appalling levels of pollution.
All a far cry from wild Amur-Heilong, “one of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world, vast steppe grasslands and unbroken taiga.”
But with the turn of the 21st century China turned too, in a surprising, historic and incredibly welcome new direction. The heavily industrialised country with its brutally damaged environment and waning biodiversity announced its intention to become the ecological civilization of the 21st century. With its hand held and guided along this unfamiliar path by an array of notable conservation and sustainability agencies¹, China’s ambitious target is to build “a resource-saving and environmentally friendly society by 2020.” An ambitious target in a positively astounding time frame.
(While President Xi Jinping is personally invested in reversing “severe ecological damage” and building a greener future for his country, his counterpart in the White House is busy dragging the US back in the opposite direction)
Part of China’s grand green plan is an entire, revamped national park system to be developed over the next three years, with the Amur-Heilong reserve as just one piece of the jigsaw. The fabulously visionary Bird Airport is another. 9 pilot parks already established. Hopeful and exciting times in the Peoples’ Republic!
Brought to the brink
Apart from the Amur tiger, to which it will give a wide berth, the leopard has no enemies to fear but one – the most feared animal on the face of the planet, Man. The cat has been hunted for its beautifully marked and luxuriously thick coat, and hunted again because it preyed on the deer and elk that human hunters crave for themselves. Humans felled and burned its forests, and crisscrossed its territory with railways and lethal roads until all that was left for the cat to roam from its vast historic range was an area the size of Dorset. And a population brought to an all time low of 35. Man it was that brought this leopard to near-extinction.
Over the river into Russia
Just the other side of the great Amur river, Russia is also working hard to turn around the fate of Panthera pardus orientalis. In 2012 Russia created, also in Amur-Heilong, a secure national park for the cat, good habitat with ample prey, the Land of the Leopard. This short word picture of a camera trap clip is testimony to the park’s success:
“The leopard steps forward to the roe deer carcass, wedged among the rocks where she dragged her prey two days earlier. She looks back along the trail and coughs discreetly. Three small whiskered faces emerge, and her six-month-old cubs scamper over the rocks to greet her. She steps back and allows them to feed.
It’s a heart-warming scene of health and productivity. “
(How much would we give for a glimpse of one of those ‘three small whiskered faces’!)
Russia too is making history
From the 2007 low of 35 leopards, the population today at 70 is ‘stable’, and hopefully still on the up. Good news. But Land of the Leopard is reaching capacity, so Russia, partnering with its own set of conservation agencies², has earmarked an additonal but separate reserve for the leopards to the northeast, at Lozovsky. The Amur leopards that once slipped like shadows through the Lozovsky forest wilderness were wiped out 30 years ago, but their prey animals are still in good supply. It’s never been attempted before, but the scientists reckon reintroducing the cats is a viable option.
No-one though wants to chance moving any of the few and precious Land of the Leopard cats. Far too risky. So this is where, we hope, the zoos’ captive breeding programs can make a real contribution to conservation.
“Young leopards bred from these captive animals will be raised in a special breeding center inside the reserve, and the cubs chosen for reintroduction must pass rigorous tests, proving that they can hunt in the wild, and that they still retain the ‘panic response’ fear of humans.”
Everything is ready and waiting for them right now. So provided cubs born in captivity can adapt successfully to the wild, two or three breeding pairs of Amur leopards may be stealing silently through the snow in Lozovsky as early as the end of this year. And if the program works out as hoped, it will pave the way for more reintroductions in the future.
Two nations, two stories
Humans brought the Amur leopard to crisis point. It is still on human behaviour that the future of the leopard depends. For the cat’s population to have a chance of bouncing back,“the communities that make their living in this remote corner of the world must be prepared to share their forests with the big cats.”
In Russian Amur-Heilong the people are already onside. Over centuries they’ve learned the wisdom of sharing the land with predators. Besides, today’s Amur leopards are immensely popular stars in their own “reality show” (camera trap footage) on Russian TV. Even President Putin is a fan.
In China though, the mindset is different. So,“an outreach program in the Heilongjiang region is working to convince locals that leopards are worth more than just their pelts,” and the forests more than just timber. Conservation agencies are organising cooperatives to show the people more sustainable ways to live with and from the forests, such as harvesting Korean pine nuts, or working for the park itself, including as park rangers.
The great powers finally get it together
Two great nations divided by one great river which marks their common border. Two great nations dividing between them Amur-Heilong, the land of the Amur leopard and the Amur tiger.
You can drive across the border from China to Russia. The two big cats of course can’t. They know nothing of borders and divisions, and care even less. And that used to put them in great danger, because what 15 years ago was a quiet road, is now a major highway buzzing with traffic from a new and sizeable city on the Chinese side. That is what makes Russia’s money-no-object Narvinskii Pass Tunnel, a new wildlife corridor opened in 2016, running for a third of a mile underneath a major migration route for the cats, truly a matter of life and death.
So, two nations joined across the Amur by road, but still acting separately in their efforts to bring the iconic big cats back from the brink.
Until now. “Six months ago, the Russian government signed an agreement with Beijing University that enabled, among other things, the sharing of camera trap images.” These two beautiful cats have finally brought the nations together, and in “a new spirit of co-operation” the two powers are at last reaching hands across the divide.
It may have taken longer than it ought, but it’s another historic step very much in the right direction. Let us hope it will result in many more ‘small whiskered faces’ caught on camera in the years to come.
Wild tigers to reappear in Kazakhstan after 70 years
Last Friday (Sep 8th), Kazakhstan & the WWF signed off on an historic reintroduction of wild tigers – Amur tigers to be precise. Not the same as the Caspian tiger driven to extinction in Kazakhstan 70 years ago, but closely related.
The Fund is providing $10 million (8.3 million euros) for the project.
Kazakh Agriculture Minister Askar Myrzakhmetov said work on a specially protected natural area for the tigers would start at the beginning of next year.
“In fact, we are talking about restoring a whole ecosystem, where this species is set to be reintroduced,” Myrzakhmetov said at a press conference in the Kasakh capital Astana.
And Nature Needs Us to Work Together with China -Wild Foundation
All images with kind permission of ALTA
Land of the Leopards – bioGraphic
Pollution in China – Wiki
Qiaotou – Wiki
Our Planet: Ecological Civilization – UN Environment