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China Approves Massive National Park to Protect Its Last Big Cats

The 5,600-square-mile reserve along the Russian border will safeguard rare Amur leopards and Siberian Tigers

A wild female Amur leopard crouches on a rocky hillside in the Kedrovaya Pad nature reserve in Russia. (Nature Picture Library / Alamy)
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Over the last several years, China has been working toward setting up a massive system of some two dozen national parks, using "America’s Best Idea" as a model. And as Xinhua news agency reports, last week authorities announced what will become one of the country's first national parks: a reserve in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces.

The park will cover over 5,600 square miles, 60 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park, Xinhua reports, and aims to protect the Amur leopard and the Siberian tiger (also known as the Amur tiger)—both of which are among the world's rarest big cats. The park, which lies along the border between China, Russia and North Korea, will link together several existing parks and reserves, and, backers hope, will foster international cooperation on preserving the big cats. A comprehensive plan and pilot park are expected to roll out by 2020.

“China’s commitment represents an extremely important step in recovering both subspecies in northeast Asia,” Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia program tells Dominique Mosbergen at Huffington Post.

In 2007, the wild population of Amur leopards, a leopard subspecies native to northeastern China and southeastern Russia, was estimated at less than 30 and the animal had gone extinct in China and the Korean Peninsula, Mosbergen reports. At one point in the 1940s, only 40 Siberian tigers were believed to still live in the wild.

But in the last couple decades, things have started looking up for the cats. As Donegan reports, China banned guns in the area, limiting poaching. They also established a small big cat preserve along the Russian border in 2002. Both species have begun returning to China. Now, Ge Jianping, deputy director of Beijing Normal University estimates there are currently 35 tigers and 70 leopards in the area of the park. But he tells Xinhua that the proposed park is still not large enough for the wide-ranging species and that working with Russia is critical to setting aside enough land for them to thrive.

Today, there are estimated to be around 400 Siberian tigers in the wild, with most of these living in Russia, Mosbergen reports. The tigers, however, have already maxed out their population in Russia’s conservation areas, reports Kathleen McLaughlin at Science. Expansion into Chinese habitat is the only reasonable option to continue their increase.

“If they're going to save this population, it’s really going to be the Chinese, not the Russians. All the potential land for expansion is on the China side," David Smith, conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, tells McLauglin. “This is really a chance for China to shine in tiger recovery.”

There are positive signs that China is taking its commitment to the environment seriously, reports McLaughlin. The government has banned logging in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces and canceled a highway project in the area in recent years. In 2015, police cleared 80,000 snares from the area to stop poaching. The government has also promised to move 30,000 former loggers and poachers to conservation and tourism-based jobs.

“China was catching up economically for the past 30 years in so many ways that national parks were a luxury that it didn’t have the time or the money to plan,” McLaughlin tells Carolyn Beeler at PRI. “And now they finally do, and they’ve recognized the importance of setting aside wild spaces.” 

The big cat park is not China’s only effort to save its endangered animals. The first four of its new national parks are focused on charismatic animals, including pandas, Asian elephants and Tibetan antelope.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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