Feng Limin follows the lives of China's scarcest wild cats like a soap opera fan. He has never encountered one, but thanks to a network of motion-sensing cameras in the forests along China's borders with Russia and North Korea, the biologist has glimpsed a total of 27 Siberian tigers and 42 Amur leopards as they breed and prey on deer and wild boar. The spying has paid off for the big cats. What Feng and his colleagues at Beijing Normal University (BNU) have learned has helped convince the central government to create a 15,000-squarekilometer national park—60% larger than Yellowstone—that could save the cats from extinction.
Feng's studies have indicated that both the Siberian tiger—the world's largest cat, with males weighing up to 300 kilograms—and the Amur leopard face dire threats from poaching, logging, and development. By easing those threats, the park "is likely to be one of the great tiger success stories" in a decade or two, says Dale Miquelle, a world authority on Siberian tigers and director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Russia Program in Vladivostok.
The big cat park—still unnamed and not yet formally announced—also signals a change in China's attitude toward conservation, often slighted as the country rushed to develop economically. With little fanfare, China is creating its first system of national parks, a major step up in management and funding from the current mishmash of national reserves, semiprotected forests, and provincial parks. About two dozen national parks are planned, and the first four mentioned by state media aim to protect charismatic mammals: Asian elephants, giant pandas, Tibetan antelopes, and, here in the northeast, tigers and leopards. "China now has enough money," Feng says. "We can pay attention to environmental conservation."
Creating parks faces much the same obstacles in China as elsewhere. The central government has to convince local authorities that the parks will not undermine their economies, and locals who made their living by logging or poaching will need help to find other livelihoods. But Rose Niu, chief conservation officer at the Paulson Institute, a Chicago, Illinois-based think tank that is helping design the park system, hopes the Chinese public will embrace the idea. The parks, she hopes, will offer "spiritual healing" to Chinese who have had to endure worsening environmental degradation in recent years.
Deep in a maple forest in China's Jilin province, Feng's team is scrambling over rough terrain to reach cameras and download photos from one of the 2000 motion-sensing cameras—one of hundreds of such visits they have to make every year. He crouches to unlock the metal frame bolting one camera to the base of a tree and scrolls rapidly through the images. "Pig, pig, deer. No tigers," he says with a shrug and a grin. He stands up, checks under his shirt for ticks, and moves on to the next camera.
China's wild tigers and leopards have long been on the ropes, suffering from hunting and habitat loss. Scientists believe that 20 years ago, both populations were nearing a genetic bottleneck. Numbers have ticked up recently with expanded habitat protection and antipoaching efforts in Russia and China, as the BNU group, led by ecosystem expert Ge Jianping, reported in June 2015 in the journal Landscape Ecology. Of the 27 tigers the team is tracking, a handful range entirely in China; a decade ago, it was unclear whether a single big cat remained exclusively on Chinese soil. The Amur leopards' plight is even more precarious, with fewer than 100 left in a tiny boundary-straddling patch of China and Russia.
Siberia has been a lifeline for the big cats. Surveys indicate that Russia's wild tiger population has increased from 40 in the 1940s to 540 today. That number is stable, but has just about maxed out the available habitat in Russia, Feng says. "If they're going to save this population, it's really going to be the Chinese, not the Russians. All the potential land for expansion is on the China side," says David Smith, a tiger expert at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who has worked with Ge's team and visited the proposed park area. "This is really a chance for China to shine in tiger recovery."
China's central government has moved aggressively to help. Since the Communist Party signaled its intention to create a national park system in a 2013 planning document, the government has banned logging in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, canceled a highway project that would have bisected big cat habitat, and rerouted a high-speed railway connecting China to Vladivostok, a city on Russia's Pacific coast. In the next few years, the government will consolidate and expand protection across 15,000 square kilometers of prime cat habitat and conservation areas. And local police cleared 80,000 snares set by poachers to catch deer and boar—and incidentally, tigers—during a sweep last year, Feng says.
Assisting locals who lose their livelihoods or homes because of the park is critical to its success, planners say. Big cats are finicky about their habitat, he notes, so even seemingly minor intrusions such as gathering pine nuts and frog farming can alter their behavior. "The devil will be in the details," says Miquelle, who will meet with Chinese scientists and officials in August to discuss the park.
At the big cat park alone, planners hope to turn 30,000 former forest workers—loggers, hunters, and even poachers—into park rangers and conservation workers. In the Huangnihe conservation district, a patchwork of old growth forest and reforested former logging areas adjacent to Jilin's two main tiger habitat reserves, Huangnihe forest reserve director Li Cheng is working with scientists and conservation groups to find alternative jobs for locals, for example by training loggers and poachers as organic honey farmers.
One of Li's success stories is Xu Fu, a 42-year-old former logger. In a lush field surrounded by new growth forest, Xu pulls a rack of bees from a hive and describes how he collects honey. Beekeeping is safer and more lucrative than his former profession, he says. "The work and the income from bees are much better, more steady."
Starting around 2002, tigers vanished here in Huangnihe. Then, 2 years ago, locals saw footprints, scratch marks on trees, and the carcasses of prey. By the end of 2014, the BNU team's cameras had confirmed that for the first time in 14 years, a young male had moved back into the Huangnihe forest corridor, more than 200 kilometers inland of current confirmed Siberian tiger habitat.
Farther west, in Wangqing, near what will be the heart of the national park, foresters hope to convert a near-empty logging town into an ecotourism destination. The workers' former gymnasium and entertainment hall will be converted into a history museum, and the town's focus will be on preserving the forest, rather than razing it.
In a promising sign, the emptied village has already attracted a feline denizen. An Amur leopard these days is often spotted basking on a rock jutting from a hill overlooking the town, presiding over its new domain.