Enthusiasm and Progress at Snow Leopard Conservation Forum in China

An expert meeting held in Urumqi highlighted the enormous progress that’s been made in snow leopard research and conservation in China over the past years. Shan Shui, Snow Leopard Trust and Panthera have worked in partnership in China since 2009.

The meeting, officially titled ‘Xinjiang Tianshan Snow Leopard Conservation Forum’, brought together academic and NGO snow leopard researchers and conservationists, and officials from national and provincial Forestry Departments and Nature Reserves. Participants met in the mountains outside Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, to update each other on the work they’d been doing, and to jointly identify the main threats and conservation priorities for snow leopards in the Tianshan Mountains.

Chinese snow leopard researchers and conservationists gathered in Urumqi. Photo by Shan Shui / Panthera / Snow Leopard Trust
Chinese snow leopard researchers and conservationists gathered in Urumqi. Photo by Shan Shui / Panthera / Snow Leopard Trust

“The Forum clearly highlighted how China’s capacity related to research and conservation is gaining ground – with increasing scientific rigor. It also showed how Chinese citizens are increasingly interested in snow leopards – raising their own funds and forming citizen science groups to help with snow leopard research and conservation”, said Justine Shanti Alexander, Regional Ecologist for the Snow Leopard Trust. Byron Weckworth, Regional Coordinator for Panthera’s Snow Leopard Program, added “This increased interest and participation across multi-stakeholder groups, is imperative for successful snow leopard conservation in China.”

Participants shared a spirit of cooperation and enthusiasm. Photo: SLT
Participants shared a spirit of cooperation and enthusiasm. Photo: SLT

One such citizen scientist group, Wild Watchers, was set up by the organization Wildness Xinjiang to promote snow leopard conservation awareness in the Urumqi area. They started to survey snow leopard habitat areas south of Urumqi by cameras in early 2014. Since then, they’ve been monitoring snow leopard with the guidance of our China partner, Shan Shui Conservation Center, and Dr. Ma Ming, a scientist from the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

They have captured snow leopard photos less than 100km from Urumqi, a city of 3 million people.

“We need to harness this new enthusiasm of citizen scientists in China, and help them make their efforts more systematic and scientifically rigorous”, said Wen Cheng, Shan Shui’s Science and Conservation Director. To achieve this, in 2015, Shan Shui Conservation Center has initiated ‘Snow Leopard China’, a network to improve Chinese snow leopard conservation partnership and monitoring standardization.

A wild snow leopard roams the icy peak of its habitat in China. Photo by Shan Shui / Panthera / Snow Leopard Trust
A wild snow leopard roams the icy peak of its habitat in China. Photo by Shan Shui / Panthera / Snow Leopard Trust

One key outcome of the Forum was a snow leopard monitoring toolkit for such citizen scientists and researchers. This toolkit will help further increase the scientific rigor of surveys and should contribute to future surveys being comparable across different sites. ”Past field efforts have been all over the place with regards to methodologies and analysis, making it difficult to combine results from small, regional projects and consider patterns at larger landscape levels. The toolkit we’ve put together is a great step towards establishing the standardized approaches needed to overcome this challenge.” said Byron Weckworth.

Participants also created a snow leopard threat assessment. They identified retaliation killings by livestock herders as a relatively new major threat in the Tianshan. Poaching, habitat fragmentation and disease outbreaks among snow leopard prey species were also highlighted as threats that need to be addressed.

China is home to the world's largest snow leopard population. Photo by Shan Shui / Panthera / Snow Leopard Trust
China is home to the world’s largest snow leopard population. Photo by Shan Shui / Panthera / Snow Leopard Trust

The Tianshan, or Celestial Mountains, are a large mountain range extending 2,500km from China to Kyrgyzstan. They’re an important part of the global snow leopard range, linking the Altai mountains in the north and the Pamirs in the south.

Also read Byron Weckworth’s account of the Snow Leopard Forum on Panthera’s Field Notes blog!

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