He quits high-paying job, turns snow leopard savior

Publish Time: 2019-05-30 Author: Palden Nyima in Lhasa From: China Daily Global

Guardian helps preserve endangered species, urges raising local awareness on protection

Editor's Note: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. This is part of a series looking at significant developments in various fields as China increases its interaction with the world.

Liang Xuchang was looking for snow leopards, one of "world's rarest species", in the Tibetan autonomous region when he was chased by a bear. "I managed to escape without any physical harm," he said, recalling his terrifying encounter.

He quits high-paying job, turns snow leopard savior

Liang, nicknamed Liangzi, works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, an organization founded in 1895 and operating in China since 1996 to combat illegal trade of endangered species, and to encourage coexistence of wildlife and local residents in the Tibetan Plateau.

As a member of the WCS, which he joined eight years ago after giving up a high-paying job at Huawei, a top Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer, he is now a snow leopard guardian.

A graduate of the Imperial College London, Liang works to protect this species despite extreme weather conditions, including snowstorms, gales, heavy rain and scorching heat, in Changthang, a vast area known for its wildlife.

Since the 1980s, the Tibet regional government has been making all efforts to protect snow leopards, a Class A protected animal in China. They have been classified as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organization that works in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.

The efforts seem to be paying off. "In one way, the increasing number of snow leopard images captured by camera traps over the years could imply their numbers are increasing under protection," said Liang.

He, however, said without adequate research evidence of the species in the past, it is hard to say whether their number has increased or decreased. "But in recent decades, there are abundant incidents of the species' activities."

George Schaller, a senior conservationist at the WCS, has a different take on the snow leopard population. "There were fewer traces of snow leopards in the 1980s than in recent days. Maybe that can explain the contribution of protection; or is it because of advanced research tools?"

According to the Status of Snow Leopard Survey and Conservation China 2018, a study conducted by China Snow Leopard Protection Network - a conservation alliance made up of leading nature conservation agencies, research institutions and universities - snow leopard habitats exist in 12 countries. These include Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

In China, snow leopard habitats are mainly found in the provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai, and the Tibet, Xinjiang Uygur and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions. "China accounts for 60 percent of world's snow leopard habitat, with Tibet accounting for half of it," said Liang.

He said the habitat range of snow leopards in Tibet is huge. Currently, surveys cover only 0.68 percent of the habitat; studies are required in the region's southern areas, the Himalayas, Genghis and the Nyangchen Thanglha Mountains.

Experts have often voiced concerns over revenge attacks on snow leopards. When these animals attack the livestock of the locals, they target them.

WCS survey has found a high rate of conflict between snow leopards and people in Tibet. For example, more than 14 percent of livestock of a Tibetan herder were killed by snow leopards.

Yet, there have been no incidents of revenge attacks in Tibet, said Liang. "However, there is potential risk to the lives of snow leopards. Preventive steps are necessary."

The WCS feels snow leopards are increasingly under threat due to human activity.

Awang, founder and general secretary of Plateau Nature Conservancy, however, ruled out human conflict with snow leopards in Sanjiangyuan - the source of the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Lancang rivers - in Qinghai province.

Liang's team provides technical support to the government, such as project needs assessment, enhancing the effectiveness of nature reserves, prevention of people-animal conflict, funding, training, and project implementation.

His team works with a local wildlife protection team - a group of six people. Armed with infrared cameras, they cover an area spanning 2,000 square kilometers.

"It is not easy to carry out work in areas located at an altitude of above 4,500 meters from the sea level. Sometimes, it is better to spend the night in a sheep pen," he said.

Liang feels it is important to raise awareness among the local people about animal protection. "Locals must take responsibility and volunteer to perform this role. Residents should become conservationists because they are the real protectors."

He quits high-paying job, turns snow leopard savior

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