Mountain county changes its spots to ensure leopards thrive

Project to reinstate natural habitat on farmland is aiding survival of vulnerable native species

By Hou Liqiang and Zhu Xingxin in Heshun, Shanxi | China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-12 07:48
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Huang Qiaowen, executive director of the Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance, stands in front of a mural of a North China leopard in Heshun county, Shanxi province. [ZHU XINGXIN/CHINA DAILY]

Located at the end of a road in the Taihang Mountains, Leyi village has only 42 households with 70 residents, whose average age is 65. The densely vegetated mountains that surround the sparsely populated rural community, which has three residential areas, add to its sense of isolation from the outside world.

Recently, however, the village in Heshun county, Shanxi province, had an unusual horticultural activity. Over 10 villagers, most with gray hair, did something they had never done before when they planted flowering shrubs on ridges among farm plots.

The villagers are a key part of the Baoxiangtian project, which aims to restore natural habitats for vulnerable North China leopards. According to the project's initiator, the Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit organization specializing in the protection of wildcats in China, "bao" stands for the leopard, "xiang" for villagers, and "tian" for farmland.

The alliance, which has protected the North China leopard in Heshun for a decade, envisions a revitalized Leyi where both people and leopards thrive. The project aims to establish comprehensive biodiversity through eco-friendly and sustainable agricultural practices, said Huang Qiaowen, executive director of the alliance.

The program is an example of the multi-stakeholder governance model used for North China leopard conservation in Heshun, which involves not only the government but also social organizations, research institutions, and local communities.

A leopard subspecies native to China, North China leopards are under top national-level protection in China and were included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species in 2012.

From May 2015 to June 2020, a total of 89 adult North China leopards were identified in Heshun, local authorities said.

The county's North China leopards stand out as the "sole visibly healthy and continuously expanding" population of the species in China, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said in a media release early last year.

It is a "unique population source "for the continuation of the endangered animal, and Heshun plays a crucial role as a key channel for the animal's dispersal, the release stated.

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