Chinese government officials have approved plans to establish a mammouth national park in its Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces. The park will provide a sanctuary for two big cats endemic to the area who are perilously close to extinction: the Amur leopard and the Siberian (or Amur) tiger.
Part of China’s new national park system, it will cover 5,600 square miles, an area about 60 percent larger than Yellowstone NP. It will be one of the largest big cat reserves in the world.
“China’s commitment represents an extremely important step in recovering both subspecies in northeast Asia,” says Dale Miquelle, a conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The global population of the Amur leopard fell to fewer than 30 in 2007, the victim of habitat loss, new roads, poaching, exploitation of forests and climate change. In the 1940s, only about 40 Siberian tigers were thought to still exist in the wild.
Like the leopard, the surviving tigers were found mostly in northeastern Russia, where some conservation measures were introduced under Soviet rule.
By the early- to mid-1900s, the Amur tiger was assumed extinct in South Korea (the tiger’s status in North Korea is unknown). Populations in China had dropped to fewer than five animals around the same time, Miquelle said.
But since then, both species have made a steady comeback in the region.
In the 1990s, China ceased logging operations in the area where tigers and leopards roam, and banned civilian gun ownership. The government also created Hunchun Tiger Leopard Nature Reserve in 2002, a small patch of habitat along the Sino-Russian border.
These measures, combined with Russian efforts and those of conservation groups, helped populations of both the Amur leopard and tiger recover. According to the WWF, numbers of the Amur leopard (the “world’s rarest cat”) have doubled since 2008. Nearly 60 were counted in Russia, and up to 12 were spotted in China.
The Amur tiger is doing even better. Today, about 400 of them survive in the wild. Most of those are in Russia, but at least 30 are thought to live in northeast China, and that number is slowly growing.
Some human settlements in northeast China function as important corridors linking cat habitats in China and Russia. The Chinese government says it hopes the new national park will help mitigate the conflicts that can arise when humans and animals live in such close proximity.
Residents in the area have expressed concern that the animals have been getting a little too close for comfort. Government officials have said that the planned national park should help ease some of these tensions. A spokesperson for Jilin’s Forestry Department said last year that there are plans to “relocate some existing communities [and] factories from inside the national park area, so as to avoid conflicts between wildlife and human activities.”
The department has also said that it will establish a monitoring and rescue center for wild tigers and leopards, as well as other scientific and research facilities, in tandem with the national park. It is hoped that the park will promote greater cooperation between Russia and China for wildlife protection in the region, and play a role in protecting the unique biodiversity of the northern temperate zone.