Tigers and Leopards Protected in China's New Park, Which Is Larger Than Yellowstone

A Siberian tiger, also known as an Amur tiger, moves quietly through the forest. (Photo: MattiaATH/Shutterstock)

In the northeastern corner of China, a huge new 5,600-square-mile reserve has been established to protect two of the most endangered species of big cats in the world: 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 the country's new park system, which is being encouraged by Xi Jinping, the head of the Communist party and the country’s president, according to state news services. Jinping wants the parks system to be part of an "ecological civilization" in China, which currently leads the world in both pollution and investment in green technology.

This is important news for the imperiled cats. By 2007, there were fewer than 30 Amur leopards in the wild, and the population for the Amur tiger got as low as five in China, though there were additional cats across the border in Russia, which had instituted some protections during Soviet rule. China quit logging in the area, which helped some cats recover, and a small reserve along the border offered just enough space to allow the cats to increase their numbers in recent years.

But those gains are precarious. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Amur tigers and leopards face “numerous threats, including encroaching civilization, new roads, poaching, exploitation of forests and climate change.” Most of those threats have been alleviated, or at least significantly reduced, by designating this large area of protected lands as part of a formal government conservation plan. The plan for the park should be rolled out prior to 2020, so it's moving quickly.

Of course, when it comes to large predators like big cats, there will always be some human-animal conflict: Pet dogs and cattle have both been targeted by tigers and leopards that live closer to human settlements. According to the Huffington Post, "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 New York Times reported that China saw the U.S. as a "model" for this kind of conservation and its parks system generally. While it has thousands of nature reserves and protected areas (over 500,000 square miles of them), they have previously lacked organization.

“China wants to develop a national park system in line with international practices and standards, but also fitting into a Chinese context,” Rose Niu, now the chief conservation officer at the Paulson Institute, which is working with the Chinese government on the national parks plan, told the Times. (Niu helped establish other protected areas when she was China country director of the Nature Conservancy). “As someone working on conservation issues for 20 years, I believe this is significant progress that the Chinese government is making.

Niu points out that — like in the U.S., — protected areas don't just benefit endangered animals but also endangered human experiences.

“The Chinese want beautiful places and beautiful landscapes,” Niu said. “They want to enjoy the natural resources. These kinds of resources are less and less in China. China not only needs to fight pollution of air, water and soil, but it also needs to invest in its natural capital.”