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China considers a huge national park for Amur tigers and leopards

  • Endangered Amur tigers and Amur leopards are staging a modest recovery in China’s remote northeastern provinces. Over thirty tigers and some 42 leopards now roam the region’s forests.
  • The big cats’ habitat remains threatened by human encroachment and experts say the amount of forest currently protected is insufficient to support their growing populations.
  • The government of Jilin Province, where most of the big cats live, has proposed a massive new national park focused on the two species that would connect three existing protected areas.
  • The park remains under consideration by the central government.

It is rare to spot an Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) in the wild, according to Yang Jun, director of the Hunchun Forestry Bureau’s wildlife protection department. However, on July 19, residents of Machuanzi, a village merely 10 kilometers away from downtown Hunchun in China’s northeastern Jilin Province, informed him that a tiger came to the residential area and ate two dogs on a single day.

Yang went to the village immediately after he heard the news and saw footprints of the tiger and blood stains of its prey just 20 to 30 meters away from a villager’s house. “We then left four foot-bound roosters on the ground near the house for the tiger,” Yang told Mongabay. “The tiger did come back and picked the roosters one by one, four consecutive times, and we took video of the whole process.”

Living inside the buffer zone of Hunchun National Nature Reserve near the border with Russia, most villagers in Machuanzi never encounter a live tiger in their lifetime due to the animal’s scarcity. The villagers set off firecrackers to scare the tiger away, but it seemed unwilling to leave the human domain, where it could easily obtain prey. Yang said the tiger, a sub-adult not yet fully capable of finding its own prey in the wild, remained in a neighboring village about four kilometers from Machuanzi and ate sheep from local’s sheepfold.

Jilin province’s Forestry Department was planning to trap the tiger and send it to a remote forest area away from the villages, Yang told Mongabay in early September. “However, so far the tiger has not yet been successfully trapped,” he added.

Footprints of a wild Amur tiger in the forest in Hunchun. Photo courtesy of Global Protected Area Friendly System

Revival

The Amur tiger, a subspecies of tiger also known as the Siberian tiger, is a flagship animal of the boreal forest ecosystem. The subspecies once lived throughout the Russian Far East, northeastern China, and the Korean peninsula, but its population has declined dramatically due to habitat loss and fragmentation, prey scarcity, and poaching. Since the mid eighteenth century, both China and Russia encouraged large-scale migration and development in the region, which led directly to a sharp decline in Amur tigers from more than 3,000 in the late nineteenth century to fewer than 600 in recent decades. The IUCN lists it as endangered.

Between the 1950s and the 1990s, northeastern China served as a major timber source for construction throughout the country, providing 658 million cubic meters of timber between 1949 and 1986, according to official statistics. Excessive land exploitation and unsustainable consumption of large tracts of virgin forest for the sake of development caused the number of Amur tigers surviving in China to dwindle to between 150 and 200 in the 1970s and further to just 16 to 18 in the late 1990s.

Thanks to the two most important forest-protection policies of the Chinese central government — its National Forest Protection Program (NFPP) and its national-level nature reserves — this dire situation started to change. The NFPP was implemented to restrict logging in 1998 in response to deforestation-caused flooding, and Jilin implemented a complete ban on commercial logging in the province in 2015. Statistics released by Jilin’s Forestry Department indicate that forest coverage reached 93.76 billion square kilometers this year, bringing the province’s forest coverage up to nearly 44 percent.

Forestry personnel conduct an anti-poaching patrol in the forest of Hunchun in March, 2012. Photo courtesy of Hunchun Forestry Bureau

At least three national nature reserves including Hunchun, Wangqing, and Huangnihe were set up in the province around 2001, near the borders of China, Russia, and North Korea. The government established these specifically to protect Amur tigers and Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis). To maintain the integrity of the cats’ habitat, Jilin’s provincial government even canceled a highway project and rerouted a high-speed railway connecting Hunchun city to Russia’s coastal city of Vladivostok.

All these efforts are starting to pay off for the cats. “After more than a decade of conservation efforts, now the number of Amur tigers in China has seen a modest recovery” to more than 30 in total, ecologist Xie Yan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology and founder of a conservation NGO called the Global Protected Area Friendly System told Mongabay. “Twenty-seven of them have been tracked in Jilin Province alone. The number is reliable, being obtained through years of monitoring, research, and joint efforts from different research groups and science institutions.”

Four young female tigers should step into adulthood and begin breeding in the coming years, so Chinese experts predict the tiger population will continue to increase. Furthermore, according to Jilin’s Forestry Department, a total of 42 Amur leopards have been spotted in the province. The IUCN considered the subspecies extinct in China in 2007. (The group lists the leopard (Panthera pardus) as vulnerable but has not recently assessed the Amur leopard or the other eight subspecies separately.)

 

A captive Amur leopard. Photo by Tedmek via Wikimedia Commons

Cat conflicts

In recent years, it has become clear that Hunchun city and its neighborhood function as important corridors linking cat habitats in Russia and China. However, the reality is that the tiger’s habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented and degraded due to human pressure. Hunchun National Nature Reserve, which measures some 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles), is isolated. Various human activities there, including herding, ginseng planting, wood-frog raising, and gold mining have threatened the tiger’s environment.

In addition, Ge Jianping, an ecologist with Beijing Normal University who has studied wild Amur tigers and Amur leopards for decades, told China Daily earlier this year that the number of tigers has exceeded the area’s ecological carrying capacity. According to Ge, the overcrowding could cause a population crash because of pressure on resources.

“An individual female Amur tiger’s territory amounts up to 450 square kilometers, thus a successful recovery of a viable population of 18 female tigers require a minimum of 10,000 square kilometers,” Xie said. “But the current protected area is way too small.”

The strain is starting to show in an unfortunate cycle that is detrimental to people, tigers, and their prey alike. The increasing number of cattle in Hunchun city, to over 40,000, threatens wild ungulates as they consume the same grass. And the decline of the ungulates — the tigers’ and leopards’ natural prey — in turn threatens the big cats. Now tigers are frequently attacking cattle raised by local herders. In Hunchun city alone, the average number of tiger attacks on cattle has surpassed 100 each year.

An Amur tiger and its prey, a local farmer’s cow, photographed by a camera trap near Hunchun National Nature Reserve in China’s northeastern province of Jilin. Photo courtesy of Hunchun Forestry Bureau

Since this May, Yin Zhaohai, who owns pastureland in Hunchun city, has lost over 20 cattle, six of them to tigers. “We cannot retaliate against tigers, which are protected animals, but the security of both the cattle and us should be considered,” Yin told Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, in mid-August.

In 2006, Jilin Province launched a program to compensate people for livestock and grain lost to wildlife. The provincial government will compensate people for 100 percent of the market value of livestock preyed on by tigers and leopards. By 2015, the government spent over 120 million yuan ($18 million) on a total of 37,000 compensation cases for wildlife damage to crops and livestock.

Yang Weihe, the Global Protected Area Friendly System’s Amur tiger project manager, told Mongabay that Jilin’s full compensation program is effective in alleviating conflict between people and big cats. “Otherwise, humans might take retaliatory action, including spraying poisons on the remains of the prey,” Yang said.

Another source of conflict is poaching. According to Xie, despite being strictly prohibited, some locals set wire-loop snares to trap wildlife, such as boar (Sus scrofa) and Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus) in the forests. This both reduces tigers’ prey and directly threatens tigers’ lives. According to media reports, between 2000 and 2010 at least one Amur tiger was killed by a snare, and in January 2016 another was found dead as a result of serious snare wounds on its neck.

A Siberian roe deer, which Amur tigers and Amur leopards target as prey, photographed by a camera trap in near Hunchun National Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Hunchun Forestry Bureau

Last winter, between September 2015 and January 2016, Hunchun National Nature Reserve cleared 8,250 wire snares within the reserve and Jilin government officers apprehended 314 poachers. Wang Aimin, director of the China program of the New York-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, told Mongabay in Beijing in late July that the number of wire loops remaining in the forest is still significant and poses a dire threat to the tigers.

In the opinion of ecologist Jianping, the top priority for the provincial government should be to minimize human activities, including herding and farming, in order to expand the effective habitat available to the two flagship species. He added that anti-poaching and snare clearing missions, as well as the relocation of communities from some key habitat areas, should ideally be completed before this upcoming winter, when it’s more difficult for the big cats to find prey.

“Jilin provincial government has so far made a great effort, yet due to limited financial resources, national-level support is urgently needed to sustain and enhance the conservation effect,” said Ge.

Yang Weihe of the NGO Global Protected Area Friendly System clears a poacher’s snare in Hunchun in January 2015. Photo courtesy of Global Protected Area Friendly System

A new park

A planned Amur Tiger and Leopard National Park pilot project aims to draw more national support, both financial and technical, for the protection of the big cats. The Jilin provincial government presented the pilot project plan to the central government for approval this May and a decision is still pending. An inside source who requested anonymity told Mongabay the new national park would extend 14,600 square kilometers (5,640 square miles) to connect and include Hunchun Nature Reserve, nearby Wangqing Nature Reserve in Jilin province, and Laoyeling Nature Reserve in neighboring Heilongjiang Province. It’s a huge area, 60 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.

Xiao Wanjun from Jilin’s Forestry Department told Xinhua in August that the national park is expected to ease human-tiger conflicts. “Local government plans to relocate some existing communities, factories from inside the national park area, so as to avoid conflicts between wildlife and human activities,” he said.

China boasts approximately 10,000 protected areas covering about 18 percent of the country, a proportion higher than the global average. But weak management and insufficient funding are threatening most of the protected areas’ conservation efforts. To revamp the management of all of China’s protected areas, in late 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping included the development of a true national park system into the central committee’s official plans for deeper reform. Nine pilot parks across the country were announced in June 2015.

This is a crucial moment for Chinese conservation, Yang Rui, head of Tsinghua University’s landscape architecture department and a member of a team of experts appointed by the central government to advise the national park project, told Mongabay. According to Yang, if the new national park system successfully unifies dissenting interest groups and changes the mindsets of local governments that are hungry for economic development, it may be the first step to realizing the central government’s aspiration of a truly ecological civilization.

Young volunteers find a Siberian roe deer trapped in a poacher’s snare in January, 2016. Photo courtesy of Global Protected Area Friendly System

The central government has pledged that the new national parks will be more effective in managing and protecting land and wildlife than existing protected areas are, but the concept of the new Chinese national park system remains otherwise poorly defined. Ecologists say systemic change is needed before the new national parks can successfully prioritize nature conservation while remaining an educational attraction open to the public.

“Frankly speaking, I still worry about the current national park situation when almost all attempts to build national parks in nine different provinces are still based on attracting tourists and profit,” Yang said. “If national parks are blindly built before national park reform is concretely defined, the results would be disastrous.”

During a recent interview with Mongabay, Chen Jin, Director of Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Yunnan Province, also cautioned that in building a national parks system from scratch, the government should enact strict legal protections for the parks. Otherwise, without effective restriction by national law, short-term protections might give way to local governments’ development ambitions in the long run.

Just how the Amur Tiger and Leopard National Park will function has yet to be clarified, but experts say it would represent a significant step in protecting the charismatic cats. Ecologist Xie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences commented that building a new national park larger than 10,000 square kilometers that connects now-separated protected areas is crucially meaningful for Amur tiger and leopard conservation. She emphasized the importance of community protection efforts, pointing out that it is impossible to relocate all the people who now live inside the proposed national park boundaries.

“10,000 square kilometers is merely the present necessary habitat for the tiger population, and with the revival of the tiger population, it would be likely that local communities would coexist with roaming tigers in a large area amounting to 30,000 or even up to 300,000 square kilometers in the future,” she said. “So both humans and the tiger need to learn how to live together in a peaceful way.”

According to Wang of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China program, it is those locals who would learn the best routines and habits for living with their tiger neighbors. “It is very important for the community to make a balancing demarcation line and follow some principles to avoid direct conflicts with their neighbors,” he said. “The goal is to attain a harmonious dynamic state between the two.”

 

CORRECTION 9/26/16: A previous version of this story stated that thirty tigers now live in China. The actual number is a bit higher and we changed the story to say “over thirty.” We regret the error.

 

Captive Amur tigers, a mother and a cub. Photo by Dave Pape via Wikimedia Commons