The return of the snow leopard to parts of northwest China has raised the excitement of scientists and naturalists, who are trying to preserve local flora and fauna, amid rapid economic development. Credit: Handout.

All it took, was an infrared camera — just one, placed in the Beishan Forest Farm, on the eastern end of the Qilian Mountains in China’s Qinghai Province.

Two snow leopards — a mother and her cub — captured by the camera in the mountains on the night of September 30, 2020.

To Chinese naturalists and scientists, it was a remarkable moment.

After decades of rapid development, the tide on the cost of economic progress and development seemed to be turning, according to a special report in the Global Times.

In other words, hope had sprung, from this amazing sighting — their ecological actions, their work was finally paying off, and things are now headed in a good direction.

“Some local residents over 60 years old said they heard there were snow leopards here, but nobody had ever seen them,” Zhao Changhong, director of Beishan Forest Farm, said.

“Snow leopards had not been seen here for decades.”

As the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau ecosystem’s flagship species, the existence of these amazing animals could dictate the health of the ecosystem.

In Qinghai’s case, the ecology has been identified as being of the “biggest value, duty, and potential.”

But it has come at a cost.

Under the need for environmental protection, some regions have had to forfeit some profits and re-engage, in developing new sources of income, such as tourism, the report said.

Taking bold steps to advance conservation, Qinghai has engineered a public ranger system, with 145,100 people joining, working in wetlands, forests, or grasslands, of which 17,211 are from its Sanjiangyuan National Park, the origins of the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, and the Lancang (Mekong) River.

Qinghai also directly supplemented farmers’ and herdsmen’s income to the tune of 1.875 billion yuan (US$293 million) in 2020 as ecological compensation.

In July 2020, after around two decades of halting logging, the Beishan Forest Farm of Huzhu county and Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences has now set up 24 infrared cameras for investigating wildlife.

While the leopards have hunted and killed several sheep from herds, officials say local residents are fine with it, believing that it means “good fortune.”

The snow leopard, an acutely endangered species insulated by thick fur with black spots, often found in steep, rugged terrains in high mountain ranges, has welcomed a golden age of protection in China. Credit: Handout.

In fact, in the race to rescue snow leopards, local herdsmen have become an indispensable force, the report said.

Peking University has cooperated with the Beijing Shanshui Conservation Center to carry out ecological monitoring training for herdsmen in Yunta Village.

Over the years, trained herdsmen have taken turns to maintain and recycle the infrared cameras set up in the mountains every three months and submit the data to Peking University.

In recent years, more snow leopards have been spotted thanks to the new ecological protections, Qi Xinzhang, vice director at the Xining Wildlife Park and Qinghai wildlife rescue and breed center, told Global Times. 

There are currently between 7,446 and 7,996 of these felines left in the wild, according to statistics released this year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the report said.

In March this year, Qi and his team recalls rescuing a snow leopard at a village in Menyuan county.

The big cat hit and broke some glass, and suffered a concussion.

“I’m 51 … I had heard of the snow leopard as a protected animal, but had never seen one before,” Ma Shengcai, the first witness, said.

After a thorough check and several days of rest at Qi’s rescue center, the leopard was released back into the wild — no doubt, a much smarter cat.

“We put a GPS tracker on it, and so far found it patrolling a huge territory, covering different counties,” Qi said, “Snow leopards are at the top of the food chain, suggesting the ecosystem in the whole area is healthy.”

Qinghai has a unique but fragile ecological system with species from the high plateau, such as the Tibetan antelope, Przewalski’s gazelle, and the snow leopard.

To maintain such biodiversity takes great effort, and, unfortunately, one brave man paid the ultimate price.

The story involves the sacrifice of Sonam Dhargey, an official in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai, who was fatally wounded in a gunfight with Tibetan antelope poachers.

However, his sacrifice was not wasted — with tough protection measures, the population of Tibetan antelopes has now risen to 300,000, the report said.

Sonam’s legacy lives on.

The environmental monitoring center in Xining also has access to real-time footage of the antelopes and other wildlife with the help of 46 monitoring spots.

Beishan Forest Farm, with an area of 1,127 square kilometers, has a unique but “reasonable” ecosystem of a mixed broadleaf-conifer forest.

At least 1,209 plant and 198 animal species live there, winning the region the title of “the green kingdom.” 

What is happening in Beishan is also happening around the country, with millions of loggers becoming forest guards, enlisted in tree-planting and forest fire prevention.

In Yushu’s Namse Township, Tibetan forest ranger Asong, with the local government’s help, has been using infrared cameras to capture traces of snow leopards around his pasture.

Wearing his favorite T-shirt printed with the words “Walking with the Leopard,” Asong is filled with excitement when talking about the animal.

“Snow leopard is called ‘King of the Snowy Mountains,’ and the places it passes through are sacred,” he said.

Sources: Global Times,