As China marks World Wildlife Day on Saturday, Chinese conservation authorities have called for greater protection of endangered feline species even as it commended existing efforts.
“The numbers of giant pandas, crested ibis and Tibetan antelopes are rising, which shows remarkable progress in protection work of wildlife,” Li Chunliang, deputy director of State Forestry Administration, said.
“But due to the disturbance caused by human activities, large feline animals such as tigers and leopards face endangerment risks, and more work is needed to protect them. We will increase protection and cooperation with other countries and improve management.”
Li was speaking at a campaign for the World Wildlife Day in Guangzhou this week, Xinhua reported. World Wildlife Day, which celebrates wild animals and plants, is aimed at raising awareness about threats against them.
In China, species such as giant pandas, crested ibis, and Tibetan antelopes that were once extremely endangered are facing fewer risks.
The giant panda is the best known species to be brought back from the brink of extinction in China but there are a handful of others that are just as intriguing but much less familiar.
Their stories show the destructive influence of humanity but also how people can give many endangered animals a fighting chance at survival.
In 1964, an ornithologist recorded what was thought to be the last crested ibis spotted in the wild in China. But Chinese researcher Liu Yinzeng was not so sure and after a six-year search stumbled across an adult pair with three chicks in Yang county, Shaanxi province. Guards were stations around the tree, and fertilisers, pesticides and shotguns banned from the area. Today, the area is a crested ibis conservation zone and the species’ population stands at more than 2,600.
Arguably the most famous – and best-loved – face of animal conservation efforts, the giant panda was downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” status in 2016 after its wild population grew 17 per cent between 2004 and 2014 to 1,864. Global conservation body WWF attributed the recovery of the species’ numbers to science, political will and the engagement of local communities.
Golden snub-nosed monkey
Just as rare, but not nearly as famous, as the giant panda, the golden snub-nosed monkey can be found in snow-covered mountain forests in central and western China. In 1986, a survey in Shennongjia, a Unesco World Heritage Site in central China, found only 501 monkeys living there. But after decades of reforestation and a hunting ban, numbers had tripled to around 1,500, state-run Xinhua reported last year. The golden snub-nosed monkey is one of the five golden monkey species, which are highly endangered and have the highest protection.
Estimated to have a population of 1 million or more at the start of the 20th century, the Tibetan antelope was poached to near extinction, prized for its wool used in luxury shawls known as shahtoosh. Numbers dwindled to less than 75,000 by the mid-1990s. It takes an average of four antelopes to make one shawl, which can fetch up to US$20,000 each. Conservation efforts seem to have paid off. In 2016, the species was taken off the endangered list and is now classified as “near threatened”, with 100,000 to 150,000 mature adults.
Once abundant in the lower Yangtze River, the Chinese alligator was driven out of its habitat by a people as wetlands were turned into rice fields, and cities encroached on the waterway. But in 2008, the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society reported good news: Chinese alligators that had been reintroduced to the Yangtze hatched 15 baby alligators on Chongming Island at the river’s mouth. Nevertheless, the species remains critically endangered, with just 150 in the wild.
Pere David’s deer
In the early 20th century, overhunting and loss of habitat nearly wiped out the Pere David’s deer in China. But in the mid-1980s 39 deer from a European herd – bred from specimens sent by a Catholic missionary priest a century or so earlier – were reintroduced into the wild in China. From this small group, the population grew steadily and a count in 2005 found 2,500 in three national nature reserves in China, including the Tianezhou Oxbow Wetland Reserve in Hubei province.
The Przewalski’s horse, also known as takhi, was thought to be the world’s last wild horse – meaning its ancestors were never domesticated – but a new study suggests that it descended from a breed of domesticated horses. Hunting, loss of habitat and interbreeding with other horses led to their extinction in the wild in the 1960s, but efforts to reintroduce the population to China and Mongolia have succeeded and the horse was reclassified as “critically endangered” in 2008, then “endangered” in 2011. WWF attributes the survival of the Przewalski’s horse to conservation programmes at zoos.
South China tiger
In the early 1950s, China had an estimated 4,000 South China tigers but that number dwindled to 200 at most in 1982, under pressure from hunting. Despite occasional, unverified reports over the years, the South China tiger is believed to be extinct in the wild. Breeding programmes have been successful, and efforts are under way to reintroduce captive-bred tigers to the wild. But big challenges remain, including a lack of space for the tigers to learn to hunt, degraded habitats, and a small gene pool.