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China: An Increase in Snow Leopard Sightings

Prepared by Cheng Chen, Snow Leopard Project Program Officer & Scientist, Shan Shui Conservation Center/Panthera. Cheng has a Doctorate in Ecology, and joined Snow Leopard Team on September 1, 2014

In the last half of the month, snow leopards have frequently been seen near human settlements in the Sanjiangyuan region of Qinghai Province, China.

a wild snow leopard photographed in China's Sangjuangyuan area, one the country's prime snow leopard habitat

a wild snow leopard photographed in China’s Sangjuangyuan area, one the country’s prime snow leopard habitat

At dusk of April 9th, in the county town of Zaduo, three snow leopards showed up on a mountain ridge only about 100 meters away from the road. Zaduo County, which located in the source of Lancang-Mekong River, south of Sanjiangyuan, possibly holds the largest snow leopard population in China, and has the biggest continuous feasible habitat for this species, according to the camera trapping done by Shan Shui Snow Leopard Team and Peking University.

Even so, it is rare that snow leopards would come and stay so close to where crowds of people are. The scene attracted more than 300 people who stopped to see the cats. The snow leopards showed no fear towards people and left into the darkness after half an hour.

The very next morning, in the neighbor county of Buwei Village, a herder, Nangqian, found a juvenile snow leopard lying in her barn. Nangqian had seen it wandering around the neighboring barns for days.

Snow leopard sightings seem to be on the uptick in China

Snow leopard sightings seem to be on the uptick in China

The villagers were able to lure the snow leopard into an enclosure and informed the town government. A general check by government officers showed that the animal was weak and thin, but had no trauma.

The unexpected guest was then released into the nearby sacred mountain Zaji. In fact, since the Tibetan New Year of 2015 (Feb. 19th), snow leopards have been seen three more times in the two counties.

The reason for the increase in frequency of snow leopard sightings in human settlements is not known with certainty yet. It could be the result of population increase or lack of wild prey.

A Sign of Conservation Progress?

Baby snow leopard in the wild

Optimistically, in both events, people and snow leopards showed little fear towards each other, indicating the progress of conservation in this area. The local people thought it was a blessing to have seen this sacred animal according to their traditional culture, which is also a good base of conservation.

There were also accounts of the three snow leopards in Zaduo County being attacked and chased by several wild dogs, which reminds us that the influx of wild dogs is a new problem in conservation.

We already have interviews and video evidence from herders and monks that suggest wild dogs prey on wild ungulates and rob snow leopards’ kills. The dogs are also a potential carrier for trans-species infectious diseases such as canine distemper.

Further studies on the interactions between snow leopards and wild dogs, as well as developing a plan for the management of the wild dog population are crucial.


Four Cats in One Day

Our Chinese field braced the bitter cold of the Tibetan Plateau to set out research cameras and was rewarded with a rare sighting of four snow leopards at once – a mother with two cubs and a male cat.

Adapted from a report PhD student Lingyun Xiao

usually solitary, it's a rare treat to encounter more than one cat at once.

It’s a rare treat to encounter more than one of these usually solitary cat at once. Photo courtesy of Shan Shui / Peking University

Suojia, a township located west of Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, is a place where the wildest nature remains.  People moved to this county merely 50 years ago due to an expanding population in other areas. However, the strong winds and cruel coldness of this township are not the most conducive conditions for human inhabitation, which is why we can have numerous wildlife living there, including the mysterious ‘mountain ghost’ snow leopard.

Snow Leopard_20131227_CAM43080_Zhajiang_2Snow Leopard_20131227_CAM43080_Zhajiang_1

Even though spring is on its way in most places of the plateau, winter persists in Suojia as if it will never go away.  Our first day was quite sunny and the low temperature didn’t bother us too much.

However, as night fell, the wind began to howl, sounding as if thousands of monsters were shouting together. We struggled to crawl out of our sleeping bags the next morning, knowing it will be a tough day out in the field.

After a whole day fighting with the wind and snow, we succeeded in setting out several camera traps and also observed a lot of animal tracks, including those of two brown bears which led to dens.

This kind of weather is hard for us, but it’s ideal for snow leopards that are looking to hunt.   All day we kept our eyes busy, hoping to witness a snow leopard hunting for wild prey.  We had almost given up hope when we caught a glimpse of two figures sneaking along a cliff.  The big tails could undoubtedly only belong to one animal: the mountain ghost.

the snow leopard mother comes back for her family dinner

the snow leopard mother comes back for her family dinner

Slowly the pair climbed up, and just then we saw the third one! A snow leopard walked quite elegantly in front of where we were.  It crossed the icy river, and didn’t even bother to give us a glance.  Snow leopards are just like this: always keep their own pace, as confident as a king.

We thought it had to be a mother, since the first two who crossed, waiting for this last one to join them.  They reunited on the slope, and beyond our expectation, they began to walk toward us.  Only when we spotted the body of a dead yak on the other side of river bank did we realize what is attracting them. They walked very cautiously and finally stopped to wait.

We prepared to leave not wanting to interrupt the family dinner, when our Tibetan field assistant, Douxiujia, noticed all of the three leopards looked up.  Suddenly, the snow leopard who we assumed to be the mother jumped up and crossed the river again.

She walked along the valley as one of the younger cats jumped up and ran after her, disappearing behind a big rock. The young cat hesitated, and just then we followed its gaze and saw a fourth snow leopard walking down the slope.

From the face and shape we guessed it was a mid-age male, the real king of the territory.  The big male didn’t seem to be bothered by the presence of the other cats and just kept on moving towards yak carcass on the river bank. We never did see the female cat and her possible cub ever emerge from their original hiding post.

chased away by a big male cat, this cub is rushing to rejoin its mother

chased away by a big male cat, this cub is rushing to rejoin its mother

This is the first time in the field we observed the interaction among different snow leopards.  It was interesting to see intimidations not only coming from other species, but from inside the population as well.  I guess as a snow leopard, it would say, I’m just a big cat struggling for everyday life.

All photos courtesy of Shan Shui and Peking University

Buddhist Monks are Champions of Snow Leopard Conservation

Our team in China has enlisted monks at several Buddhist monasteries on the Tibetan Plateau to help protect snow leopards. They are convinced that these monasteries can be crucial partners in the fight to save these endangered cats. (more…)