Friday, November 06, 2009

Snow leopards: China, at the center of it all

By Charudutt Mishra, PhD, Science and Conservation Director

It is almost impossible to overstate China’s importance for snow leopard conservation. This single country contains over a million square kilometers of snow leopard habitat—about 60% of the species’ global range—and is home to an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 cats. The Trust has recently begun working in Qinghai Province, which is at the center of snow leopard distribution in China and home to perhaps 650 cats. (That’s as many as in all of India!)

Last summer I made my first trip to Qinghai Province with a couple of representatives from our new partner organization, Shan Shui, an environmental NGO based at Peking University that is very well respected and has a strong background in science. The main thing we did was a lot of driving—3,000 kilometers of driving, starting in the provincial capital of Xining in the northeastern corner and making a big square around the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau. We visited the Kongya monastery, right in the heart of snow leopard habitat, and stayed with several nomadic herding communities.

One thing that surprised me was the area over which every community moves and has an impact. A single herding community in Qinghai may range over an area of 3,000 square kilometers. That is much larger than what I’m used to in the Himalayas, where communities generally have an influence over areas on the order of 50 to 100 square kilometers. That’s very exciting, as it means that working with even a single community in Qinghai we can have a positive impact over a large area of snow leopard habitat.

Snow leopards do face significant conservation challenges in China—some, like livestock predation and retaliatory killing, are similar throughout the cat’s range, and others, such as mining development, are unique to China. However, I left Qinghai inspired and optimistic about our conservation work. The communities we spent time with were very positive and welcoming. Some of them are quite well organized and already doing their part for conservation, such as organizing local patrols to try to discourage poachers. It’s a very exciting time for our work in China, and I’m really looking forward to getting back into the field there.


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