Wild leopards of Beijing by Michael Rank

Wild leopards of Beijing
by Michael Rank

Northern Chinese Leopard s.jpg
North China Leopard
Panthera pardus japonensis
There are plenty of urban tigers strutting the streets of Beijing these days, but more surprisingly there are reported to be rural leopards lurking the misty mountains of Mentougou and other outlying areas of the Chinese capital.

I first heard about leopard sightings near Beijing when I visited Xiaolongmen (小龙门) forestry plantation about 110 km northwest of the city centre back in 1999. I went in search of brown eared-pheasants, a rare species unique to China. I only heard these elusive birds calling in the distance and didn't see any. But I was fascinated to hear from Mr Li, a forester and his wife Ms Guan, how they had seen a leopard a few years earlier when they were picking mushrooms, and so had a colleague on a separate occasion.

Zhao Xinru (赵欣如), an ornithologist at Beijing Normal University, also told me he believed there were leopards lurking in the mountains around Beijing and there has been further backing for this from Gao Wu (高武) of Capital Normal University. Gao told Xinhua news agency in 2001 (in English) that he believes there are about 10 leopards in the Beijing area. This may not sound like a lot but they are shy and solitary animals.

Gao said that as recently as the 1950s local farmers had reported leopards frequently attacking livestock in Huairou, Mentougou and Fangshan counties but there had been no such reports since the 1990s. However he added: "In fact leopards continue to survive against the odds in Beijing. They feed on roe deer, goats and rabbits, etc in broadleafed forest and have a radius of less than 100 km."

He said that in the last few years a further 22,000 square kilometres of land had been given protected status in Beijing and that 5% of the municipality was now protected, so it was now "entirely possible" that the Beijing's leopard population would increase to 30, which was its size 50 year ago.

Xinhua has also reported other signs of leopards (article in Chinese). In December 2003 it carried an interview with a forester from Xiaolongmen called Zhang Zhenshui who told how he heard a loud noise from a wild boar enclosure one evening in 1992 and how one of the boar had been attacked and died of its injuries. He and his colleagues saw a shape jump over a wall, and are sure it was a leopard as they found leopard's pugmarks. The reporter was told that leopard's pugmarks have frequently been seen in the area. Forestry technician Ren Zhengguo told him how in 1999 he heard a noise which he took to be a roe deer but to his surprise saw that it was a leopard, after which "he did not dare go out into the mountains for the next couple of days." Forestry workers said this was the sixth leopard sighting in the area in 10 years; they were usually very shy and had probably attacked the boar because they were hungry and it was very cold. The boars incidentally had been bought from a farm in northeast China as a visitors' attraction for 1,000 yuan each.

Signs of cats unseen
Another Xinhua report (in Chinese) from April 2005 tells how forester Wang Chengqiang came across leopard pugmarks a few days earlier just one kilometres from Boyu (柏峪村) village near Zhaitang (斋唐) in Mentougou county. "This is the first time a leopard's pugmark has been found so close to the village," said local Party secretary Liu Jingwang, who has lived there for over 50 years.

Liu said he first saw a leopard in 1966, when there were plenty of wild boar which fed on the crops. One day he came across a leopard in a trap. It was put on a scales and found to weigh 90 kg. "After that many goats were killed by leopards but nobody ever actually saw a leopard, although wild boar would often destroy crops."

Wang said forestry and wildlife experts believed the leopard had come to hunt or drink in a stream. He added that leopards mate in March and April, and that there appeared to be the marks of more than one animal. Liu said, "Finding leopards' pugmarks is exceptional, maybe it came to drink or hunt because it was hungry. In over 40 years we have never had a case of a leopard attacking anyone." Nevertheless, he warned people to be vigilant but not to panic.

Incidentally leopards are widely distributed and are found in much of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia from India eastwards. There is a highly endangered population of not more than 40 Amur leopards in the far east of Russia. Interestingly, a report on Wild Cats published by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 1996 said the leopard in Africa "appears to be very successful at adapting to altered natural habitat and settled environments in the absence of intense persecution. There are many records of their presence near major cities." Let's hope this applies to Chinese leopards too.

I would be extremely interested to hear of any further reports of leopards in China


Michael Rank's previous contribution to Danwei about wild animals of Beijing can be found in the comments at the end of this post; he has also written about dodgy trademark applications in China: 1, 2, 3.


Below are notes translated from an article mentioned in the comment to a Danwei post about hog badgers:

Leopard cats — a completely separate species from leopard — are small and adaptable. The authors' survey found them in all parts of Beijing covered apart from Shihuadong scenic area. They feed mainly on rodents. They are fairly common in China ... but they are often hunted as food [!] even in eco-tourism areas...

..Leopards are the only large predator in the Beijing area. A drowned animal was found in Miyun reservoir area in 1980s but no live animals. On August 20, 2001 we found pugmarks in Wulingshan 雾灵山 reserve. This was our only evidence of leopards. It was in sand and not very clear but the size confirmed it was leopard. We also found leopard-like scats, confirming there are wild leopards there. We ... estimate there are three to four leopards in Wulingshan.

A survey of wild animals in Beijing found reports of leopards in Mentougou and Huairou counties, and as the Beijing environment improves leopards have been increasing. In winter 2003, signs of a leopard-like animal attacking domestic pigs were found at Xiaolongmen. In winter 2004 we were told that leopards come from nearby mountains in winter in Shidu (十渡) scenic area and neighbouring Sanpo (三坡) in Hebei province. As this is not far from Xiaowutaishan national nature reserve in Hebei and the area has a high possibility of having a leopard population, it would not be surprising if leopards are also found in Beijing.

Residents of mountains in Beijing also mention an animal which is not a leopard called local/earth leopard or tu baozi (土豹子) which often takes dogs and livestock, our interviews suggest this may be a newly distributed cat.

An old man who himself chased away a tubaozi that took his goat in Wulingshan nature reserve said that the animal was dark grey all over with spots, a head like a cat, small ears, a long bushy tail. He said that he could see it was smaller than leopard, and not a real leopard. We believe this is highly likely to be snow leopard [this would be sensational if confirmed!]. Snow leopards are reported to have interrupted distribution from North Eastern China, through Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, so could pass through Beijing. A special project is needed to confirm the snow leopard's distribution and to protect this national class 1 species.

In 2001 we found a strange pug mark in Shidu, it seemed to be repeated front and back paws of a small cat but the clear print made us think it could be single mark of a large predator, possibly a tubaozi or "little jackal dog", a small, very fierce dog-like animal reported near Badaling in 2004, description consistent with yellow-throated marten.

Links and Sources
  • Bao Weidong, Li Xiaojing, Shi Yang 鲍伟东等, Complex [facts concerning] predators of the Beijing area, Da Ziran 大自然 [China Nature], 2005, issue 6, 17-19 [in Chinese]
  • Wikipedia: North China Leopard (image source)
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