Final report on 2014 Monitoring Amur leopards and tigers in northeast China

I. Introduction
Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) received more attention than usual in northeast
China in 2014, with regular reports in the media of cattle depredations along with the
decision by two of “Putin’s” tigers (captive wild tigers that were re-introduced to the
wild in Russia) to cross the Amur River and spend some time in China. These reports
helped highlight the conservation plight of Amur tigers and their sympatric cousins,
Amur leopards (Panthera pardus orientalis), which have a global population estimate of
about 65 individuals in the wild. Both species are threatened by poaching for their pelts
and bones, poaching of their prey (to supply local game meat markets), and habitat
destruction caused by deforestation associated with logging, mining, and the
development of agro-industrial plantations.

 

Hunchun Nature Reserve (HNR), located in eastern Hunchun County, Jilin Province,
China, was established in 2001 based in part on data provided by the
WCS China Program that showed the area was a vital foothold for tigers entering China
from the larger, adjacent population in Russia. As such, HNR represents key habitat for
the return and recovery of tigers into northeast China. Until recently, it was extremely
difficult to derive accurate estimates of population sizes of tigers and leopards in and
around HNR. In fact, the number of Amur leopards in China was not estimated until
only two years ago, when the first snow track survey conducted in Jilin Province in 2012
estimated 8 to 11 leopards in the southern part of the Laoyeling Mountains of Jilin
Province. The survey area covered more than 2,000 km2, including HNR and Wangqing
Nature Reserve, both of which are recognized as the most important Amur tiger and
leopard habitat in China.

Location of Hunchun County, Jilin Province, China (in red)

Location of Hunchun County, Jilin Province, China (in red)

 

In 2012, the Forestry Bureau of Jilin Province (FBJP), in collaboration with WCS and
other partners, initiated a camera trap monitoring program in Hunchun and Wangqing
Counties. Within the region surveyed by WCS in 2013 five tigers (two males, three
females) and two leopards (sex unknown) were detected. In 2013, across the entire
survey area in eastern Jilin Province, there were an estimated minimum of 10 tigers
(seven adults including four females, two males, one adult of unknown sex, and one
litter of three cubs) and eight leopards (six adults and two cubs). In 2014 we hoped to
continue intensive monitoring across eastern Jilin to better define the number of tigers
and leopards in the region.

 

II. Project Achievements
The goal of this project was to assess current populations of Amur tigers and leopards in
and around HNR. Here we present achievements toward each of our objectives and
activities:
Objective 1: Set up and maintain a camera trap network for Amur tigers and leopards
Activity 1.1. Conduct camera trap monitoring in HNR
Via a cooperative agreement with FBJP, we continued to conduct camera trapping in
two of the six subunits of HNR (Chunhua and Madida) and a section of a third (Yangpao) during the grant period – the same subunits where we worked in 2013. We set up pairs of camera traps at the same 19 locations in2014 (from December 2013
to November 2014) as in 2013. We recorded five Amur tigers and two Amur leopards
within these subunits. We had left camera traps out from November 2013 to November 2014, but broke this
year-long effort into four (seasonal) periods: winter (November/December 2013 to
April 2014); spring (April to June 2014); summer (June 2014 to September 2014) and
autumn (September 2014 to November 2014). One pair of camera traps was stolen in
winter 2013, so for the following seasons we only had data from 18 pairs. We pulled
cameras in early November in 2014 before snows prevented access. Starting with the
summer monitoring period, we utilized Panthera camera traps (donated by the WCS
Malaysia Program) at 14 locations. These units use white flash (not infrared) so we were able to get clear, color photographs at night, increasing our ability to identify
individual animals.

 

Pooling data from December 2013 to November 2014, eight camera trap locations
captured both tigers and leopards, six locations captured only tigers, and two locations
captured only leopards. Based on an examination of stripe (for tigers) and spot (for
leopards) patterns, we identified 11 tigers (three male, seven female, and one sex
unknown) and seven leopards (four males, one female, and two sex unknown).
Interestingly, we captured two tigers together walking along a
dirt road in the Madida subunit; a first for northeast China. Compared with Amur tigers,
the Amur leopards are smaller and walk faster, resulting in photographs of poorer
quality (i.e., blurry) that are not suitable for identifying individuals.

A male Amur tiger passes our camera trap in Hunchun Nature Reserve, Jilin Province, China, August 2014 © WCS China

A male Amur tiger passes our camera trap in Hunchun Nature Reserve, Jilin Province, China, August 2014 © WCS China

 

Activity 1.2. Foster development of a unified camera trap database
In 2014 nine partners, including the Feline Center of the State Forestry Administration
(FC-SFA), HNR, Wangqing Nature Reserve, Huangnihe Nature Reserve, Hunchun
Municipal Forestry Bureau, Zoology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS),
WCS China, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) coordinated camera trap surveys in
Hunchun, Wangqing and Dunhua Counties, covering an area of approximately 2,000
km2. In accordance with the agreement WCS China helped coordinate, all photo images
and data were submitted to the Forestry Bureau of Jilin Province for pooled data
storage and analysis. Interestingly, for the first time both Amur tigers and leopards
were recorded in Jiaohe and Shulan Counties (west of Huangnihe Nature Reserve) in
the second half of 2014, representing a continuing expansion of the range of both Amur
tigers and leopards in Jilin Province over the past few years.
With coordination by WCS, a cooperative agreement between Chinese reserves
(Hunchun, Wangqing) and Russian reserves (Kedrovaya Pad, Land of the Leopard) was
signed in April 2014. This important step will lead to increased cooperation in felid
conservation between China and Russia.

 

With coordination by the Forestry Bureau of Jilin Province, five partner organizations
(WCS, WWF, Feline Center of the State Forestry Administration, Hunchun Municipal
Forestry Bureau, and Beijing Normal University), set up 214 pairs of infrared cameras in
the Changbai Mountains in 2014, covering an area of more than 1,728 km2.
For the entire year of 2014, these 214 camera-trap sites provided 610 photographs of
tigers and 80 photographs of leopards. From these images, a total of 24 tigers and 5
leopards were identified. Additionally, we were able to confirm that there were four
unique groups of females and cubs in Hunchun Nature Reserve.
We are also currently in discussions with management at Land of the Leopard National
Park (Russia) to begin the process of sharing camera trap images. We hope the
cooperation between China and Russia continues to strengthen in 2015.

 

Objective 2: Snow-tracking tigers and leopards to learn about behavior and movement
patterns
Activity 2.1. Tracking tigers and leopards. In January and February of 2015, WCS China
staff followed tracks of Amur tigers and leopards for 18 days in areas surrounding HNR,
including Heshan forestry farm, Erdaogou, Sandaogou, Sidaogou, and Wudaogou zones
(an area of 740 km2). These activities were conducted in coordination with
the Hunchun Municipal Forest Bureau. We covered 144 km of line transects both on
foot and by vehicle to discover 12 Amur tiger tracks, which we followed for a total
distance of 17.6 km. Due to little snow cover,
tracking in many instances could be done only over short distances, and certain sets
consisted of only a single pugmark. No leopard tracks were found areas surveyed.

Amur tiger tracks detected and followed during snow surveys

Amur tiger tracks detected and followed during snow surveys

 

There was only one bed site found, which was 180×50 cm. Most tiger tracks were
following wild boar (Sus scrofa) tracks. One characteristic of Amur tiger tracks in this survey was
that almost all of them were > 24 hrs old and some of them were poorly defined due to melted
snow conditions. We did not find any hunting episodes while tracking, but we did find
one tiger scat in which we found four hooves of a roe deer (Capreolus pygargus). Our interviews with

HMFB staff revealed that there was practically no evidence of
Amur tigers or leopards in these survey zones even five years ago but there has been a steady
increase since then. This may be related to snare-removal activities conducted by HMFB (and
partly supported by WCS China) over this period. Camera trapping by HMFB in these areas
revealed a female Amur tiger with cubs, while the distribution of tracks from our survey could
indicate that Amur tigers already use these zones extensively. Compared with HNR, our survey
zones were narrow and stretched east-west, meaning they might be used as corridors for Amur
tigers moving from HNR to inner China.

Amur tiger tracks were sometimes indistinct due to melting snow

Amur tiger tracks were sometimes indistinct due to melting snow

 

From our results we inferred that Amur tigers preferred broad-leaved forests, where there was
an abundance of wild boar tracks. We discovered a number of tiger tracks on Transects 6 and 7
and believe this area included good locations to set camera traps in the future. It is worth
noting that along the 144 km total transects surveyed here, we only found two snares. We
suspect that the significant decrease in snares in these areas (as part of the snare-removal
campaign) may allow an increase in prey abundance, and therefore improved conditions for
Amur tigers and Amur leopards.

 

III. Conclusion
The WCS China Program has focused on the scientific research and conservation of Amur tigers
and leopards in the Changbaishan Landscape for more than ten years. Thanks to generous
support from the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance, we have made important strides in our work
to monitor Amur tigers and leopards in Northeast China by documenting range expansion and
possible corridors, as well as proof of breeding.
We are promoting trans-border cooperation between Chinese and Russian governments to
improve conservation and monitoring on the ground. The Chinese and Russian governments
are now clearly striving to improve joint protection for Amur tigers. It is especially significant
that China’s President Xi Jinping has written instructions and comments on the Jilin Provincial
Government’s Report on tiger conservation on June 15, 2015.
Recent analyses of data collected by the Forestry Bureau of Jilin Province and Beijing Normal
University revealed that over a two-year period there were 27 Amur tigers and 42 Amur
leopards identified in eastern Jilin Province, suggesting a dramatic increase from numbers
believed even a just a few years ago. While these estimates do not represent results of a survey
(camera traps were active nearly year-round, so clearly some tigers/leopards could leave [or die]
while others could have been born or immigrated during this period). Nonetheless, the results
are very encouraging.

 

We have established partner relationship with the Forestry Bureau of Jilin Province, Hunchun
Nature Reserve, Hunchun Municipal Forestry Bureau, Hunchun Border Guards, Wangqing
Nature Reserve, Huangnihe Nature Reserve, Feline Research Center of Chinese State Forestry
Administration (FRC-SFA), and Beijing Normal University. The Forestry Bureau of Jilin Province
wants to strengthen cooperation with WCS through our provision of technical support and
partnership in the camera trap project. Other partners, such as Hunchun Nature Reserve,
Wangqing Nature Reserve, Huangnihe Nature Reserve, and Feline Research Center of Chinese
State Forestry Administration, also need our technical support to protect these big cats.

There is much yet to be done, but clearly the signs point toward a slow but steady increase in
the tiger and leopard population in northeast China. Continued support from ALTA to maintain
our camera trapping project is vital, as our results are part of an overall process to increase
attention on tigers and leopards, understand more about trends, habitat use, and threats, and
improve conservation actions for these species in Northeast China. We believe there is a great
opportunity to improve conservation actions and even increase land designated for tiger
conservation in northeast China, and continued monitoring will be a vital part of convincing
government officials of the need for such actions.