Dr. Li Juan has earned her PhD developing the most finely scaled map of snow leopard distribution in China to date
Her studies show that while, compared to other snow leopard habitats, conflicts between humans and snow leopards are a less urgent problem on the Tibetan plateau; habitat fragmentation and poaching remain major threats
Dr. Li Juan is a true pioneer. In 2012, the Snow Leopard Trust’s newest China staff member became the first female scientist to earn a PhD in zoology with a focus on snow leopard studies. What truly matters to her are results, though: “In a small enough field, anyone can be first in something”, Juan says, “so this doesn’t mean all that much to me. I’d rather be a pioneer for doing groundbreaking work.”
She’s certainly well on her way to do so: Advised by Dr. Lu Zhi, professor of conservation biology at Peking University and founder and chief scientist of Shan Shui Conservation Center, Li Juan conducted the first systematic research on the ecology of snow leopards in this area to earn her PhD. Now, funded by the Snow Leopard Trust, Juan is back in the field, doing a postdoc at Peking University. We wanted to find out more about her love for snow leopards, her past findings and her future research goals.
Q: Juan, you’ve chosen to focus your research on snow leopards. What is it about these cats that fascinates you?
A: The sheer beauty and silence of the snow leopard and its environment are fascinating. The Tibetan plateau is a breathtakingly beautiful region. I’ve always enjoyed spending time there, sitting on the top of the world, watching wildlife in complete silence, surrounded by the blue sky, the white clouds, and the snowy mountains.
In the past three years, I’ve been lucky enough to come across wild snow leopards eight times! I’ve seen them walking calmly, and resting leisurely on a mountaintop. They’re so fascinating to me that they’ve even started showing up in my dreams!
Besides, I truly love scientific research; analyzing data to uncover the hidden roots of a complicated phenomenon. Snow leopards are particularly fascinating from a scientific viewpoint because they still hold so many secrets for us to decipher.
Q: What are the most important snow leopard secrets that you’ve been able to decipher through your research so far?
A: Based on our data and distribution models, we have developed the most finely scaled leopard distribution map in China to date. This has allowed us to draw conclusions on how snow leopards select their habitat. It looks as if the ruggedness of the terrain and the average annual temperature are among the most important criteria. On a smaller scale, the density of prey species such as blue sheep also seems to matter quite a lot.
Q: Recently, you have discovered an exceptional density of snow leopards and their prey in the Yaqu valley in the Suojia region of Sanjiangyuan, on the Tibetan plateau. What makes this valley special?
A: The Yaqu River, one of the main feeders of Yangtze River, flows through the valley, allowing for fertile grasslands that can feed a large population of blue sheep. We’ve counted more than a thousand blue sheep living on roughly 84 km2. For snow leopards, this abundance of prey in such a rugged valley constitutes ideal living conditions.
The abundance of carnivores and prey makes this area ideal for research. Last year, we’ve deployed research cameras in the area to analyze interactions between species. We found one rocky junction between two valleys that was particularly fascinating. A large number of mammals passed there at different times, and many of them sniffed the spot and then marked it themselves. We believe this spot serves as a ‘sign post’ for the animals in the area, with their marks containing messages to other animals.
Another important factor is its seclusion: there is a small Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the mouth of the valley, and relatively few human settlements; so there are very few conflicts between humans and wildlife and thus a lower threat of retaliatory killings or poaching.
Q: What have you found out about such conflicts between wildlife and humans in the broader region of the Tibetan plateau?
We conducted household interviews to find out more about local herders’ attitudes towards and conflicts with snow leopards. Before the People’s Republic of China issued the law on the Protection of Wildlife in 1998, snow leopard parts had been used in the area as part of traditional customs. According to our survey, this is no longer the case. Livestock losses due to predation are a bigger problem, as they can cause conflicts. However, only about 10% of these incidents were due to snow leopards. Wolves and diseases seem to be much more important factors. Correspondingly, the cultural images of snow leopards were neutral (78%) or positive (9%) on the whole.
Q: What are the priorities in working with these communities to reduce existing conflicts even further?
Reducing livestock losses remains crucial to snow leopard conservation. To achieve this, we recommend a multi-pronged approach including compensation and insurance programs to ease the economic impact of livestock losses through predation; and training local veterinarians to combat livestock diseases more effectively. With the Shan Shui Conservation Center, we’re working on expanding such programs across the Tibetan Plateau.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in snow leopard conservation in China?
Apart from threats related to habitat loss and fragmentation, the trade of snow leopard bones and furs and the resulting poaching remain a major challenge. Based on our incomplete statistics, at least 432 snow leopards were killed in China between 1990 and 2011, with poaching accounting for about 80% of these cases. Our interviews indicate that there may have been some progress in recent years, but the threat is still there . Disease may be another challenge, but we know very little about that yet.
Q: What will your future research focus on?
I plan to identify whether the parallel Qinghai-Tibet highway and railway, which cuts through snow leopard habitat, could be a barrier between cat populations on the two sides of this traffic artery. Snow leopard habitat is naturally fragmented, so such a dividing line could be an additional threat for snow leopards’ dispersal.
Another important focus is to deepen our understanding of snow leopards’ demography and relationship with wildlife that shares their habitat. A new study focusing on the snow leopard-prey dynamics has been initiated by my colleague Xiao Lingyun. She’s a PhD candidate at Peking University.
We’re thrilled to have Li Juan on board. Her skill, determination and pioneer spirit will be invaluable assets in tackling these challenges and ensuring the long-term survival of China’s – and the world’s – snow leopards!