Large cats such as the popular snow leopard are apex predators, occupying a position at the top of food chain. They control the populations of their prey species, with cascading effects on the entire landscape, which is why they are considered an indicator of the integrity and health of ecosystems. And because of their beauty, strength and predatory skills they have fascinated people for millennia, and are now often regarded as flagship species, whose role as charismatic ambassadors draws people into biodiversity conservation.

A snow leopard Panthera uncia, captured by a camera trap.

In China, there are 13 species of wild cats, many of which are increasingly rare and confined to inaccessible, mountainous areas far away from cities. We were excited to find—through years of monitoring with infrared cameras—no less than seven species in Xionglongxi Nature Reserve and adjacent areas, in the Hengduan Mountains, west China: the leopard Panthera pardus, snow leopard Panthera uncia, Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx, Asian golden cat Pardofelis temminckii, Chinese mountain cat Felis bieti, Pallas’s cat Otocolobus manul and leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis. The reason for this remarkable richness of felid diversity lies in the geography of the Hengduan Mountains.

A Pallas’s cat Otocolobus manul walking away from a camera trap in the rugged landscape of the Hengduan Mountains.

This 364,000 km2 mountain system consists of several mountain ranges that are running roughly north to south and are separated by deep river valleys—a complex geography that provides a range of habitats, including subtropical, temperate and montane biomes. Subalpine coniferous forests dominate in the mountains. These dense, pristine forests, the relative isolation, and the fact that most of the area remained free of ice during the ice ages, have allowed a rich biological diversity to flourish. The area is one of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots, home to one-third of China’s higher plant species and half of its bird and mammal species.

The Asiatic golden cat Pardofelis temminckii, Chinese mountain cat Felis bieti and leopard Panthera pardus.

In 2013–2015, the Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department initiated a study to gain insights into the mammal diversity of the area. The infrared cameras deployed during the exploratory phase captured leopards, leopard cats and Eurasian lynxes, other carnivores such as the yellow-throated marten, Siberian weasel and Asian black bear, and ungulates including the sambar, tufted deer and Alpine musk deer. Following this pilot study, in 2016 and 2017, we set up 149 camera traps to monitor an area of c. 1,872 km2 (582 km2 in the Reserve and 1,290 km2 in adjacent areas). These cameras captured photographs of 29 large and medium-sized mammal species, of which 13 are globally threatened and 22 are nationally threatened within China. Carnivores were especially diverse, with 16 species recorded, including the seven cat species mentioned above.

Night-time camera-trap images of the Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx, Chinese mountain cat Felis bieti and leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis.

This striking diversity does not come without problems, however. Large predators occupy vast home ranges, and as the human population continues to expand, their territories increasingly overlap with areas of human settlements and activities such as livestock grazing. Among the felids in our study area in Xinlong County, leopards are frequently involved in negative interactions with people, because they hunt livestock such as yaks and sheep. Other large carnivores such as the grey wolf were also frequently reported to attack livestock, and brown bears and wild boars sometimes forage on crops, damaging farmers’ livelihoods. To help enable coexistence of people and wild animals, the provincial government is developing a compensation scheme for damage caused by wildlife.

Carnivores captured by the cameras included the Asiatic black bear Ursus thibetanus, yellow-throated marten Martes flavigula and grey wolf Canis lupus.

An additional approach to ensure the conservation of the montane fauna with the support of the local people is the establishment of conservation agreements. In 2018, with the support of Sichuan Forestry and Grassland Bureau, Xinlong County Forestry and Grassland Bureau, and the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology Foundation, we launched such agreements in Yimai Village (Sewei Township) and Wari Village (Xionglongxi Township), in the area where we did the camera-trap study. The principle underlying these agreements is to rent land of high conservation value from the government or landowner and protect it from destructive development, for the benefit of land owners, communities and biodiversity. The agreements involve multiple ownership models such as protected areas, state-owned forests, and collective forests, and cover ecosystems such as grasslands, woodlands and wetlands.

The Hengduan Mountains are home to a rich diversity of ungulates, such as the Wapiti Cervus canadensis, tufted deer Elaphodus cephalophus, Chinese serow Capricornis milneedwardsii, sambar Rusa unicolor and wild boar Sus scrofa.

In Yimai and Wari Villages, the goal of the conservation agreements was to establish Community Conserved Areas. These areas are particularly rich in biodiversity, perform vital ecosystem services, and are of cultural value to Indigenous people and local communities. According to the agreement between the villages and Xinlong County Forestry and Grassland Bureau, the communities are responsible for the protection and monitoring of wild felids, including the placement of cameras. The Bureau provides funds for monitoring equipment and support for outreach and educational activities in the village. The outcomes of the agreements will be independently evaluated annually. Since the implementation of the agreement, 14 rare and threatened species have been monitored, including 10 mammal species such as the leopard, snow leopard and Eurasian lynx, and four Galliform bird species such as buff-throated partridge and white eared-pheasant.

We are now working with Sichuan Forestry and Grassland Bureau to advance the establishment of a larger nature reserve of national protection status in the area, so that this region can be even better protected in the future.

All Photos: Xinlong Forestry and Grassland Bureau

The open access article Camera trapping reveals area of conservation significance for large and medium-sized mammals on the eastern Tibetan Plateau is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Yang Biao has a PhD in Ecology and is Deputy Secretary General of the Society of Enterprise and Ecology Foundation (SEE Foundation), and affiliated with Xihua Normal University. He is interested in the distribution and ecology of rare wild animals and plants, and strategies for their conservation, such as the establishment and management of nature reserves, and the involvement of local communities. He has served as a member of the China National Committee of the IUCN Green List, and of the 4th National Panda Survey Expert Technical Committee. Formerly Director of the Wilderness Program and the Field Office of Conservation International, China, he was responsible for developing strategies to protect forests and freshwater habitats, and build resilience to climate change.

Yu Xu is a PhD scholar and Associate Professor at School of Life Sciences, Guizhou Normal University, China. He is interested in animal ecology and conservation and has experience working on high-altitude birds and mammals on the eastern Tibetan Plateau.