Rewilding hope for a big cat [East Asia]

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By Huang Qiaowen (Kerry)

Kerry is Chief Executive Director of the China Felid Conservation Alliance.

I am a young Chinese woman named Kerry. Like many of us, I have found a 2013 photo of a mountain lion walking under the Hollywood sign to be captivating. When I look at it, it’s like seeing an iconic legend of modern society.

In China’s capital, Beijing, we are working hard to create the same kind of legend. Since 2017, our organisation, the Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance, has launched a large carnivore recovery project that we call “Bring Home the Leopard”. We believe in a dream, that the condition of the habitat in Beijing is sufficiently good for a proud and healthy leopard to walk on the Great Wall, patrolling his territory and overlooking modern Beijing, just like the cougar in Hollywood.

I was not born with this dream. I used to be a reporter, following nature enthusiasts doing biodiversity surveys with infrared cameras around Beijing. At that time, I first learned of the unique subspecies of leopard in China, the North Chinese leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis), occasionally spotted in the outskirts of Beijing. However, in the last 20 to 30 years, there has been no trace of leopards in the city environs. I began to wonder, Why? And could we bring them back?

These questions haunted me and, six years ago, drove me to become a full-time conservationist. They drive my colleagues, too. Since then, we have worked in three directions.

First and foremost, to learn about the North Chinese leopard and its needs. In the deeply cultivated protected habitat in Shanxi Province, 280 kilometres from Beijing, through ten years of data gathering and conservation, we have witnessed the stabilisation and growth of a leopard population. In the last five years alone, forty cubs have been born. We know that females can give birth to two or three cubs at a time. Their favourite prey is roe deer and they like habitat with high connectivity. On average, for every two males there are five females. As long as the habitat conditions are met, they thrive.

Second, we began to conduct ecological examinations of the habitat, covering around forty thousand square kilometres from Shanxi Province to Beijing, equivalent to the area of the Netherlands and home to more than thirty million people. This was to assess the condition of the current habitat, identify priority areas for official protection, and understand issues that may need to be addressed to improve habitat suitability for the leopard. Besides tracking down two populations of leopards that could potentially expand towards Beijing, we identified two barriers to that expansion—insufficient prey and insufficient habitat connectivity—and we needed to solve the issue of poaching, not to mention the concerns of local communities.

Of course, we know this is a huge project. It will likely take us decades to realise. This is not a feat that a conservation organization can accomplish alone; it will require the support of, and efforts by, different sectors of society. Which brings us to the third direction—public engagement. Through online promotions, media releases and publications, hands-on nature education, celebration activities, and the preparation of a museum dedicated to more than 120 inhabitant species of the North China mountain ecosystem, we are working hard to publicise the charm of this beautiful cat and their under-appreciated habitat needs. We would like to inspire the public to be receptive to the restoration of the leopard’s habitat and even to welcome sightings of these majestic animals in our capital city.

A museum dedicated to inhabitants of the North China mountain ecosystem

Our confidence of success comes from the power and resilience of the leopard. The leopard in the photo below, taken in 2012 by an infrared camera, was only 39 kilometres away from Beijing. At that time, there was no known leopard population within 200 kilometres of the capital. This male leopard most likely wandered more than 200 kilometres to explore the territory.

A North Chinese leopard photographed on a trail camera just 39 kilometres from Beijing

This is the reason why I do what I do. The leopard is a majestic animal, and the mountains and rivers surrounding Beijing will be even more beautiful when this big cat retakes its rightful place. I hope you can support our project and spread the word. The leopard is coming home.


Rewilding Successes is grateful to Terry Townshend for editorial support with this piece.

Location of Beijing