for National Geographic News
September 10, 2007
The pelts of 27 snow leopards were recently seized from a black market trader in China. The record bust highlights the menacing threat to one of the world’s most endangered cats, experts say.
Acting on a tip, agents from China’s State Forestry Administration raided an apartment in western China last month, according to state media.
“Police found three snow leopard heads and two snow leopard skeletons in the raid,” Ge Yun, of the China-based nonprofit Xinjiang Conservation Fund (XCF), told National Geographic News.
The seizure is reportedly the largest haul of leopard pelts since Chinese officials began keeping records in 1949.
An official with China’s State Forest Administration, who identified himself as Mr. Li, confirmed the arrests in a telephone interview but declined to offer details.
“The snow leopard is endangered, and the government is working very hard to protect it,” he said.
Elusive, Valuable Cat
An elusive cat with short front limbs, large paws, and elongated hind legs, the snow leopard is able to traverse snowy mountain terrain, scrubland, grassland, and steppes.
Its range includes the rugged lands of South and Central Asia—including parts of China, India, and Nepal—where its skin and bones are sought for garments and traditional remedies (see map).
In harsh, politically unstable regions within the animal’s range, a single snow leopard pelt can mean a small fortune.
Mr. Ma, for example, told police he bought the pelts in Tibet and the northwestern province of Qinghai last year.
He had since sold two for a profit of 4,000 yuan (U.S. $530), according to news reports.
The illicit traffic in pelts has been the main culprit in the snow leopard’s decline, conservation groups say, and activists have called for stronger multinational enforcement of wildlife laws.
According to one estimate, only 3,000 to 7,000 of the cats remain in the wild.
The dynamics of pelt- and animal-smuggling in the region are changing gradually amid increased law enforcement and redoubled efforts by conservation groups and religious leaders to change traditional attitudes.
But the black market remains.
In 2005, XCF published an investigation on the poaching and illicit trade of snow leopards in Xinjiang Province in northwestern China.
“We found that the trade in skins in India, Nepal, and China targets markets in Tibet and Sichuan,” XCF’s Yun said.
Tibetans are known for wearing coats of tiger, leopard, and snow leopard skin, displaying them during a traditional horse festival in the town of Litang in Sichuan Province.
“There, local skin dealers buy big cat pelts from the [nearby] Gansu Province,” Yun said.
She and others have been encouraged by the recent efforts of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, who has asked followers to stop using, selling, or buying wild animals and their derivatives.
Conservationists who recently visited the Litang horse festival saw positive signs, Yun said.
“They were very happy to see that not one single wild animal skin was used,” she said.
But in Gansu Province, near where Mr. Ma was arrested and where the majority population is Muslim, attitudes are still fixed.
“There, cat-skin sales are still rampant,” Yun said, adding that her group is planning to write a series of conservation documents that draw from the Koran.
“We would like to convince the local spiritual leader of Muslims to give teachings on wildlife conservation,” she said.
Other experts say threats to the big cats go beyond the demand for skins. Instead, shrinking habitats and dwindling prey are putting snow leopards in disastrous contact with farmers, they point out.
“Poaching still is a threat to the [leopard] population in Tibet,” said Dawa Tsering of the conservation nonprofit WWF in China.
“However, the root cause of poaching is not because of skin trade but human-wildlife conflict.”
Habitat fragmentation and declines in the numbers of wild goat and sheep—the snow leopard’s natural prey—are forcing cats to attack domestic livestock, conservationists say.
The result has been an increase in what Tsering called “reprisal killings” by farmers and herders.
Even so, Tsering said, officials in Tibet have made gains in cracking down on poachers.
“In general, large-scale illegal poaching has been stopped by the government,” he said.
“The Tibet local government invests large resources to protect wildlife that includes Tibetan antelope and snow leopard.”
(Read related story: “Tibet’s ‘Movie Star’ Antelope Slowly Rebounding, Expedition Finds” [February 6, 2007].)
He said police stations are frequently found across remote wildlife preserves and that officials have proved willing to work with international groups to better enforce local laws.
“However, it is essential to deal with the conflict to reduce retaliatory killing,” Tsering said.