On the 5th of September, 2021, herders in Dorbod Banner in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China spotted a snow leopard wandering on the open grasslands. The animal was far from mountains, its natural habitat, and appeared lost. Forestry officials were alerted, and the following day the snow leopard was tranquilized and captured.
Xinhua news agency reported that the leopard was transferred to an animal rescue center in the city of Ordos, several hundred kilometres away, and, once it passed a medical check-up and was judged to be fit for release, it would be returned to the wild.
The animal was indeed healthy, but shortly afterwards Ordos Zoo made an announcement on their Weibo account:
“Good news! The snow leopard has already been successfully transferred to its living quarters, and will be meeting everybody very soon! We are respectfully awaiting you!”
The zoo also published photos of the snow leopard in its indoor enclosure and announced that the cat will go on public display after a press conference in the city of Ordos.
But, instead of a rush of visitors, a public outcry erupted: “This is more disgusting than poaching!” said one comment. “Is this not capturing wild animals??? Why isn’t the Forestry Bureau doing something about it???”
Chinese netizens were outraged that the “rescue center” turned out the be a zoo, and that the pledge to release the snow leopard was broken. They lambasted Ordos Zoo for their greed - turning a wild animal into an exhibit to make money.
Many channeled their fury into mocking the gaudily decorated enclosure that the zoo prepared to house the snow leopard.
Ordos Zoo claimed to “…have taken into account suitable temperatures for snow leopard and installed air conditioning for this purpose… and reproduced the special features of the natural habitat of the snow leopard – abundant rocks and snow peaks.”
However, from the photos posted by Ordos Zoo, it was clear that “reproducing the natural habitat” meant plastering a panoramic photo of mountains on one of the walls of the enclosure.
The enclosure prepared by Ordos Zoo for the rescued snow leopard. The zoo's claims that the enclosure was designed according to the characteristics of snow leopards' natural habitat were met with derision and ridicule from Chinese netizens. Images: Ordos Zoo.
“These snow-covered peaks on the walls! Just like those ocean parks who in polar bear enclosures paint concrete white!” said one comment.
“You think that sticking a (picture of a) snow mountain on a wall is what it takes?”
“Snow leopard: This ambiance? Sir, do you think I have not seen snow-covered peaks and mountain precipices?”
Social media accounts by conservationists also pointed out that exhibiting a recently captured wild cat will not only subject it to stress, but will also eventually make it habitualized to people’s presence and make it unsuitable for the release into the wild.
One such account cited a recent example of a rescued lynx that was placed on public display in Xining Zoo in Qinghai Province. Apparently, the lynx was supposed to be released, but it became used to people and is now living out the rest of its life in a cage.
Overwhelmed by the negative response, Ordos Zoo first disabled the comments to its Weibo account, and then took down the news about the snow leopard altogether.
The public outcry had an immediate effect. The Inner Mongolia Forestry and Grasslands Bureau intervened, announcing that there was no legal basis to putting the snow leopard on display, and confirmed that it would be returned to the wild.
The snow leopard was released on the 22nd of September in Helanshan National Natural Protected Area on the border between Inner Mongolia and Ningxia Autonomous Region, hundreds of kilometres from where it was captured.
Helanshan is a sliver of mountains a hundred kilometres long and about 20 kilometres wide that projects northwards into the deserts and grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Helanshan was chosen as a release site for two reasons – first, it has a large population of blue sheep, snow leopard’s favoured prey. Second – the Ningxia government have long wanted to reintroduce snow leopards to Helanshan.
Snow leopards disappeared from Helanshan about fifty years ago, but last year one was caught on an infrared camera, confirming that the species was recolonizing their former habitat. The reintroduction will be a boost to the natural recovery of snow leopards in the area.
This is the second incident involving lost snow leopards this year in China. In March, a young male who was looking for territory came down the mountains, got lost in the lowlands and wandered into a primary school in the town of Menyuan in Qinghai Province. It was captured and released.
Snow leopard is grade 1 nationally protected animal in China, and harming, killing, transporting or selling such animals (as well as products made from them) is punishable by prison sentences of up to 15 years.
China has made great strides in snow leopard protection, the result of years of effort by NGOs working with local authorities and communities. So successful has this effort been that China is now one of the best places in the world to see a snow leopard, one of the world’s most reclusive cats.
Visitors have an excellent chance of seeing a snow leopard, as well as wolves and common leopards, in Valley of the Cats in Qinghai Province, where a sustainable grassroots ecotourism initiative is operated by Shan Shui Conservation Center, one of China’s main environmental NGOs.
In recent years China has made great advances in environmental protection, but the country still has no animal rights or protection law, despite calls for its introduction. However, it is encouraging to see that the general public in China no longer sees animals and wildlife purely as a resource to be exploited. Positive changes are taking place.