Saving the magnificent cat

Updated: 2014-09-12 11:59

By Deng Yu(China Daily USA)

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Saving the magnificent cat

William Reagon (left) and Alexia Fite from Seattle at Sanjiangyuan reserve in China, where they both helped the Rapid Assessment Process survey over the summer by setting up monitors and collecting data on the movements of wild snow leopards. Provided to China Daily

The snow leopard is one of the most beautiful endangered species in the world, and work is underway to protect it in China, where most of the big cats live, reports Deng Yu from Seattle, home to one effort to protect the species in the wild.

Its habitat is one of the world's harshest environments - the high, cold and barren mountains of Inner Asia, from the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau to the mountain ranges of the Gobi Desert and central Mongolia.

And an unlikely partnership consisting of a Chinese environmental organization at Peking University, goat herders in Tibet, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and wildlife federations in the United States and elsewhere are working together to ensure its survival.

It's the snow leopard. Threats to its existence range from deforestation and poachers after its fur to goat herders killing them to protect their herds as they try to meet the growing demand for the luxurious cashmere fiber.

The big cat's total population is now believed to be fewer than 7,000 with about 60 percent in China, primarily in the interior of the Tibetan Plateau and on the northern slopes of the Himalayas. China also shares a border with nine of the 12 other countries where snow leopards are found.

In the 1970s, scientists and wildlife biologists began to go into the Sanjiangyuan Natural Reserve in China in search of clues about the snow leopard. The biologically diverse region is one of the most important habitats for endangered species such as wild yak, Tibetan wild ass, Tibetan antelope and the snow leopard. The reserve is in the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai province, China, which contains the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers. The reserve was established to protect the headwaters of the three rivers.

Grass-roots focus

In 2007, Dr Lu Zhi at Peking University founded the Shan Shui Conservation Center, an NGO focusing on developing community-based, grassroots solutions to conservation in western China. In addition to her role as chief scientist for Shan Shui, she has led programs for NGOs such as the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and Conservation International, as well as conducting field projects on the snow leopard and other endangered species.

With more than 20 staff members and 20 consultants and volunteers, Shan Shui works in Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Shanxi provinces in western China in collaboration with local communities, government agencies, scholars, businesses and other NGOs.

Lingyun Xiao, a PhD student in zoology at Peking University, has been working with Shan Shui on the snow leopard protection and research program in the Sanjiangyuan reserve since November 2012. Each year she has gone into the reserve at least three times and stayed for about two months each time.

With the use of photographs from "camera traps" and other equipment, the researchers and local people are trying to understand the movement and behavior of the big cats.

"My main work is to train the local herders how to use the research equipment and monitors to collect data and track the big cats' life. They are very willing to help," Xiao told China Daily.

This interest in the cats has drawn attention to the local communities in the mountains and the fragility of the ecosystem, particularly the watersheds, which are crucial to the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people in the lowlands.

"We strive to create sustainable conservation programs that benefit both people and wildlife alike, and programs in China are definitely the most important," said Brad Rutherford, director of the Seattle-based Snow Leopard Trust.

The trust was founded in 1981 by the late Helen Freeman, a staff member of the Woodland Park Zoo, as a direct response to threats faced by the cats in the wild. Started with a budget of just under $2,000 and a few dedicated volunteers in Seattle, it now has more than 50 staff worldwide and an annual budget of over $5 million, all focused on preserving and protecting the endangered cat.

Since 2000, the trust has expanded its program to five key countries, including China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Pakistan, which contain more than 80 percent of the world's population of snow leopards. The trust began working in China in 2004.

Currently they work in partnership with Panthera, which seeks to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific work and global conservation action, and the Shan Shui Conservation Center to expand snow leopard conservation efforts in the Sanjiangyuan region.

The Snow Leopard Trust supports the work of Shan Shui by providing annual research funds. In addition to partnering with Shan Shui on their snow leopard conservation efforts, the trust fully funds the postdoctoral research of Dr Li Juan, the first woman to be awarded a PhD for snow leopard research at Peking University.

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