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In Big Win For Big Cats, China Approves National Park Larger Than Yellowstone

11/03/2017 4:29 AM AEDT | Updated 13/03/2017 2:47 PM AEDT
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An amur leopard.
Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
The Amur tiger almost went extinct in China in the 1990s. Now, the government is establishing one of the world's largest sanctuaries for big cats in an effort to revive the subspecies.

In yet another example of a “green revolution” in the country, Chinese officials have approved plans to establish a sprawling national park in the northeastern corner of the country. It will be a sanctuary for two cats endemic to the area that have dangled dangerously close to extinction: the Amur leopard and the Siberian tiger, also known as the Amur tiger.

The park in the provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang will be part of China’s brand-new national park system and will span 5,600 square miles — an area 60 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park. A comprehensive plan and pilot for the park is expected to be rolled out before 2020. 

Environmentalists are celebrating the news. 

Dale Miquelle, a conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and a big cat expert, said the sanctuary 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,” he wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.

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The park will be located in the Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin, the latter of which borders both North Korea and Russia. In this photograph, taken in Jilin's Hunchun area, lands from all three countries can be seen. The land with a lake on the left is Russia, the land in the middle is China, and the right side of the Tumen river is North Korea.

The ‘World’s Rarest Cat’

The Amur leopard and tiger are among the most endangered big cats on Earth.

In 2007, the Amur leopard’s global population in the wild plunged to less than 30. The International Union for Conservation of Nature said at the time that the animal had gone locally extinct in China and the Korean peninsula, two areas that had once been in its range. Only a tiny population of the leopard remained in Russia’s Primorsky province, researchers said, adding that the survivors were facing “numerous threats, including encroaching civilization, new roads, poaching, exploitation of forests and climate change.”

The Amur tiger had faced a similarly dire future decades earlier. Hunting and other human activities decimated populations of the Amur tiger, once found in abundance in parts of Russia, China and the Korean peninsula. In the 1940s, only about 40 Amur tigers were believed to have existed in the wild. 

Russell Cheyne/Reuters
Amur tiger cubs play in the snow.

Like the leopard, the surviving tigers were found mostly in northeastern Russia, where some conservation measures were introduced under Soviet rule. 

It was a different story in other areas. 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.

JEFF PACHOUD/Getty Images
Of all the world's leopards, the Amur is the most endangered.

But in the intervening years, both big cats have made a steady comeback in the region. 

In the 1990s, China stopped logging in the area where tigers and leopards roam, and banned civilian gun ownership, which helped reduce the threat of hunters. The government also created Hunchun Tiger Leopard Nature Reserve in 2002, a small patch of habitat along the Sino-Russian border.

Thanks to these measures — together with efforts undertaken by Russia and the work of conservation groups like World Wildlife Fund and WCS — populations of both the Amur leopard and tiger appear to be recovering. The WWF said in 2015 that the Amur leopard population ― the “world’s rarest cat” ― had doubled since 2008. Almost 60 were counted in Russia, while up to 12 were spotted in adjacent areas in China.

The Amur tiger has enjoyed an even more impressive recovery. Today, approximately 400 of them live in the wild, mostly in Russia. But more than 30 are believed roam in the forests of northeast China, and conservationists say there are signs that the population in the country is slowly increasing.

Zhang Peng/Getty Images
Some human settlements in northeast China, like Hunchun city in Jilin province (pictured), functions as an important corridor 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. 

The Tiger Ate My Dog

For all the good news, though, neither cat’s survival is assured. Several issues, including human-animal conflict, still threaten both creatures.

A number of settlements, like Hunchun city in Jilin province, are located within the animals’ range. Hunchun, which borders Russia and North Korea and has a population of over 200,000, functions as an important corridor linking cat habitats in Russia and China, Mongabay reported last year. 

Residents in the area have expressed concern that the animals have been getting a little too close for comfort. 

Last July, an Amur tiger reportedly wandered into a residential area near the city’s downtown and ate two dogs in one day. One resident told Xinhua in August that six of his cattle had been picked off by tigers in just a few months. Another resident said she had stopped venturing into the mountains to pick mushrooms and wild vegetables out of fear. 

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. 

Fan Zhiyong, species program director with WWF Beijing, said that he hopes the park will not just be boon to the endangered cats in the region, but will also play a critical role in protecting the unique biodiversity of the northern temperate zone as a whole.

He told Xinhua that he expects the park will also promote greater cooperation between Russia and China for wildlife protection in the region.  

Getty Images
An amur leopard.

China’s ‘Ecological Civilization’

The idea of a “national park” is a new one in China. 

China has established many protected areas over the years, including thousands of nature reserves covering more than 500,000 square miles, but the system has lacked regulatory cohesion and suffered from inefficiency and mismanagement

The Chinese government said in 2015 that it wanted to develop a national park system that would meet international standards. It partnered with the Paulson Institute, a Chicago-based research center, to do so. The government announced it would start with a series of pilot national park projects in nine provinces over a three-year period. The goal, officials said, would be to address the governance and policy shortfalls of the current system of environmental protection, while also extending conservation efforts to other habitats and ecosystems. 

President Xi Jinping announced in 2013 that China would roll out a series of environmental reforms to achieve this vision of an “ecological civilization,” one that could embrace economic progress while also committing to environmental sustainability.

It seems the world’s biggest polluter is on track with its plan. 

In addition to the national park network, China has become the world’s biggest global investor in green technology. The country also plans to introduce the world’s largest national cap-and-trade program this year. China has also shown an increased commitment to conservation, including, after years of pressure from activists, a ban on ivory.  

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Dominique Mosbergen is a reporter at The Huffington Post covering climate change, extreme weather and extinction. Send tips or feedback to dominique.mosbergen@huffingtonpost.com or follow her on Twitter.

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