China: An Increase in Snow Leopard Sightings

Prepared by Cheng Chen, Snow Leopard Project Program Officer & Scientist, Shan Shui Conservation Center/Panthera. Cheng has a Doctorate in Ecology, and joined Snow Leopard Team on September 1, 2014

In the last half of the month, snow leopards have frequently been seen near human settlements in the Sanjiangyuan region of Qinghai Province, China.

a wild snow leopard photographed in China's Sangjuangyuan area, one the country's prime snow leopard habitat
a wild snow leopard photographed in China’s Sangjuangyuan area, one the country’s prime snow leopard habitat

At dusk of April 9th, in the county town of Zaduo, three snow leopards showed up on a mountain ridge only about 100 meters away from the road. Zaduo County, which located in the source of Lancang-Mekong River, south of Sanjiangyuan, possibly holds the largest snow leopard population in China, and has the biggest continuous feasible habitat for this species, according to the camera trapping done by Shan Shui Snow Leopard Team and Peking University.

Even so, it is rare that snow leopards would come and stay so close to where crowds of people are. The scene attracted more than 300 people who stopped to see the cats. The snow leopards showed no fear towards people and left into the darkness after half an hour.

The very next morning, in the neighbor county of Buwei Village, a herder, Nangqian, found a juvenile snow leopard lying in her barn. Nangqian had seen it wandering around the neighboring barns for days.

Snow leopard sightings seem to be on the uptick in China
Snow leopard sightings seem to be on the uptick in China

The villagers were able to lure the snow leopard into an enclosure and informed the town government. A general check by government officers showed that the animal was weak and thin, but had no trauma.

The unexpected guest was then released into the nearby sacred mountain Zaji. In fact, since the Tibetan New Year of 2015 (Feb. 19th), snow leopards have been seen three more times in the two counties.

The reason for the increase in frequency of snow leopard sightings in human settlements is not known with certainty yet. It could be the result of population increase or lack of wild prey.

A Sign of Conservation Progress?

Baby snow leopard in the wild

Optimistically, in both events, people and snow leopards showed little fear towards each other, indicating the progress of conservation in this area. The local people thought it was a blessing to have seen this sacred animal according to their traditional culture, which is also a good base of conservation.

There were also accounts of the three snow leopards in Zaduo County being attacked and chased by several wild dogs, which reminds us that the influx of wild dogs is a new problem in conservation.

We already have interviews and video evidence from herders and monks that suggest wild dogs prey on wild ungulates and rob snow leopards’ kills. The dogs are also a potential carrier for trans-species infectious diseases such as canine distemper.

Further studies on the interactions between snow leopards and wild dogs, as well as developing a plan for the management of the wild dog population are crucial.


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