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Chinese Scientists Locates Vanishing Snow Leopards in Tianshan Mountains

By tracing footprints, observing particular signs and faeces and following scent for two months in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, a wildlife research team has finally learnt the approximate location of the endangered snow leopard, the China Daily reported on Monday.

Tomur Peak, in the Tianshan Mountains, is the only place where a group of leopards has been found by the team, Cheng Yun, co-ordinator of Xinjiang Conservation Fund (XJCF), told the paper.

It used to be home to about 800 leopards, and was one of the major gathering places for the big cats, who are dubbed masters of the snowy mountains.

Sponsored by the International Snow Leopard Trust, World Wild Fund and XJCF, researchers are studying the habitat and illegal trade of the leopards in a bid to protect the animals.

"A total of 118 imprints have been collected, mainly in the Tianshan Mountains, between September and November," said Cheng.

Trekking along 67 lines artificially marked on the Altay and Kunlun mountains, and Pamirs Plateau, totalling 48 kilometres, the team, led by Ma Ming, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a member of XJCF, found no more than three snow leopard footprints every kilometre on average.

"The number of the species is dwindling every year by several dozen or more," said Hu Kanping, an investigator in the team.

It is estimated that there are about 4,000 snow leopards in the world, with around 2,000 in China's Xinjiang area.

They are in danger from the deterioration of their living environment, caused by overgrazing and climate change. They are also popular game for poachers. The number of wild goats and argali - a mountain sheep - the leopard's main food - is also decreasing rapidly because of overgrazing, forcing the leopards to go after the herders' livestock and the herders to shoot the leopard to protect their livelihoods.

"A complete piece of leopard skin is worth 2,000 to 15,000 yuan (US$240-1,830) at Er'daoqiao market in Urumqi, the regional capital," said Hu. Er'daoqiao is the largest trading place for wildlife products, with most exports flowing to overseas markets via Fujian, Guangdong and Shanghai ports, Hu said.

The team will use more advanced facilities and high-tech devices in finding out about the species in the next two years, before compiling a protection report.


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