Due to habitat degradation and disturbance, leopards have been a rare sight in the forests of northern China for the past few decades. However, recent population monitoring has shown that a local leopard population is recovering, forging
new hope for other large carnivore recoveries in human-modified landscapes.
The Loess Plateau is a sweeping landscape of silt-coloured hills, formed from the fine sediment blown in from the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. The plateau is a dry and dusty place, embedded in Chinese history as the cradle of Chinese
civilization. Covering over 250,000 square miles of north-central China, the landscape was once a place of rich and fertile soils, abundant vegetation and an agricultural haven.
Today, the plateau is a shadow of its previous bountiful state; centuries of overgrazing, arable farming and deforestation have caused substantial soil degradation. The land has been eroded to the point of desertification, altering the
ecology of the region and causing poverty for many of the 50 million locals who depend on the plateau for their livelihood.
The removal of vegetation is the main driver behind the desertification of the land. The plants and roots which once bound the soil have been lost, exposing them to the erosional processes of flooding and wind, stripping the fertile surface
soils away, and taking the potential for agriculture with them.
The degradation of the ecosystem has not only impacted farming; regional wildlife has also been largely affected. Loss of vegetation to agriculture has altered food availability, ecological niches, and decreased habitat, whilst the growing
human population in the area has increased disturbance and noise pollution. This has affected one of the country’s largest mammals — the North China leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis).
‘Today, the plateau is a shadow of its previous bountiful state.’
The North China leopard is one of nine leopard subspecies, endemic to China and residing in the Taihang mountains and across the Loess Plateau. Globally, leopards as a species have been in decline for decades, with only a fraction of their
previous populations remaining in Africa and Asia. This is mainly due to habitat loss, prey decline, and direct persecution by humans. Leopards are perceived as an exotic species, making them highly valued in the illegal wildlife trade and
irresponsible trophy hunting operations.
Leopards are currently rated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘vulnerable’ on the Red List, although data on the individual subspecies is sparse. This is partly due to the elusive nature of leopards and
their solitary lifestyles, often remaining hidden from view during daylight and hunting by night.
Population estimates in the Loess Plateau, before the year 2000, largely depended on local knowledge. The general consensus was a steady decline from the 1960s, when villagers would often glimpse leopards in the area, to the early 2000s,
when locals reported no leopard sightings for multiple years.
However, recent studies have found the leopard is making a surprising comeback, exhibiting slow but steady population increases in a few select regions of the Loess Plateau and Taihang mountain range. The Collective for Climate Action
(CFCA) research group has estimated that roughly 18 breeding individuals inhabit the region, relying on fragments of undisturbed habitat connected by habitat corridors.
A camera-trap survey carried out by Beijing Normal University found that the leopard population increased by 25% between 2016 and 2017, a promising jump for a cat which is typically slow to reproduce. The findings were also unexpected due
to the highly fragmented state of the habitat—it is commonly believed that large predators require large areas of ‘wild’ habitat, undisturbed by humans, in order to maintain viable populations, however the leopard has proven this wrong.
Further research has confirmed that ecological networks, or connectivity between habitat fragments, plays an essential role in population stability of large predators such as big cats; increased connectivity is positively related to leopard
survival and abundance, highlighting the importance of local scale habitat restoration.
‘Increased habitat connectivity is positively related to leopard survival.’
The unlikely rebound of the Loess Plateau leopard population has occurred simultaneously with the prohibition of logging in the region, instated in 1999, and followed by major conservation initiatives implemented by the Chinese government,
regarding reduced deforestation, confiscation of private rifles, and attempts to restore parts of the Loess Plateau.
However, the rise in leopard numbers in the area brings new potential issues; leopards are predators and may attack livestock when prey is in short supply or hard to find. In 2015, leopard attacks resulted in a loss of over 50 cattle from a
single town in the region, presenting a threat to locals’ livelihoods. Although leopards rarely present a risk to humans, their growing presence in the area is increasing the chance of human-wildlife conflict.
An important part of conservation is ensuring that local communities support the conservation initiatives and are not negatively impacted by their outcomes. Human-wildlife conflicts are a difficult issue to manage, putting both parties in
danger and causing locals to become disconnected, or ‘at war’ with their native wildlife.
On the plains of the Loess Plateau, many villagers have resorted to killing leopards to protect their livestock, despite this being illegal in the country. This poses an imminent threat to the recovery of the local leopard population, and
with increasing numbers of livestock in the area, compensatory payments for cattle losses are becoming unaffordable.
A potential solution is the rewilding of large areas of the plateau. Restoring sufficient habitat would allow leopards to move freely and hunt wild, natural prey rather than entering settlements and predating livestock.
Currently, the habitat of the North China leopards is significantly fragmented, pushing leopards closer to humans than is ideal. If continued restoration of the region can create increased habitat, the carrying capacity for leopard prey
will also increase and hence the cats will be less inclined to stalk livestock for food. This means the habitat can support more prey numbers, and hence more leopards.
‘A potential solution is the rewilding of large areas of the plateau.’
The bounce-back of the North China leopard population has happened amidst increasing human development and population growth. The Loess plateau has never been under such pressure to provide for human life, and despite the ever-growing
demands of the human population, wildlife has managed to battle through and survive.
This has sparked new hope not only for the conservation of China’s leopards, but also for large carnivores across the globe existing in highly modified and fragmented landscapes, such as the lion conservation initiatives in southern Africa,
and snow leopard conservation efforts in central Asia.
The resilience of the leopard cannot be overestimated, despite its recent success. The future of the North China leopard, and leopards globally, are still in a fragile state at the hands of forest loss, poaching and wildlife trafficking. To
ensure the continuation of these graceful predators, habitat restoration must be of top priority. It must happen rapidly in the face of a changing climate and increasingly human-modified world.
Yanwen F., Guojing Z., Wenqian D. et al. (2022) Surprising leopard restoration in fragmented ecosystems reveals connections as the secret to conservation success. Science of The Total Environment. Volume
858, page 159790.