TAIYUAN, Sept. 18 (Xinhua) -- The North China Leopards, once on the edge of extinction, have been spotted again in their traditional mountainous habitats near Beijing after more than two decades, according to wildlife protection groups.
It is a clear sign that the population of the rare subspecies of leopard has continued to grow as the eco-environment has improved in north China.
This breed of leopard, also known as the Chinese Leopard, is classified as a national first-class protected animal in China. It was once widely distributed in Beijing, the provinces of Hebei and Shanxi, and other parts of north China.
However, in the second half of the 20th century, deforestation and rampant illegal hunting led to a sharp decrease in the number of the rare species.
As of 2008, their population had reduced to fewer than 500, while their living area had declined by 80 percent, according to an estimation.
Since November 2012, the endangered species has been repeatedly spotted in their traditional habitats in Hebei Province -- Xiaowutai Mountain and Tuoliang -- thanks to the conservation efforts in the region.
Most recently, a North China Leopard was spotted in Hebei Tuoliang National Nature Reserve on Aug. 20, according to Huang Qiaowen of the Chinese Felid Conservation Alliance (CFCA), a non-profit organization specializing in the protection of wild cats in China.
"Twenty years ago, these big cats almost vanished in the mountains near Beijing. Now they have found their way back. This is really good news," said Song Dazhao, former chairman of the CFCA.
The expansion of the forest is the main reason for the increase of the North China Leopard, said Yang Xiaodong, who is the chairman of an animal protection association in Heshun County, Shanxi Province, with 21 years of experience in wildlife protection.
The Taihang Mountains, which sits across Beijing and the provinces of Hebei, Shanxi and Henan, used to be the traditional habitat of the leopard.
Since the launch of an afforestation project in Taihang in 1994, over 7.3 million hectares have been brought under green cover, with forest coverage rate increasing from 11 percent to 22.4 percent.
"The project has improved the living environment of the North China Leopards and reduced the impact of human activities on them," Yang said.
Last year, an infrared camera captured a female North China Leopard wandering with two cubs in the forest of Heshun. It was the fourth time that breeding of the leopard was recorded in Heshun since 2018. Over the past two years, a total of 15 leopard cubs were spotted locally.
"In just one year, we identified 44 North China Leopards in Heshun, which showed that the population of the species in the region has reached a satisfactory level," Huang said.
Experts believe that wildlife conservation measures that are being implemented by local governments, companies and organizations will provide the leopards a more favorable living environment.
The local government in Heshun has launched a special fund to offer farmers compensation of 1,000 to 2,000 yuan (about 147 to 294 U.S. dollars) for each cattle killed by the North China leopard. The move is expected to reduce the chances of retaliation against the leopard.
The government has built animal passages and modified planned routes of some highway projects to minimize their impact on nature reserves.
Chinese fintech firm Ant Group and Beijing-based Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology Foundation, among others, have participated in the establishment of a North China Leopard reserve while promoting efforts in field-monitoring, anti-poaching and ecological compensation. Enditem