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Research Team Tracks Snow Leopard
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By tracking paw-prints and faeces trails in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, a wildlife research team has finally learnt the approximate location of the endangered snow leopard since starting the research project in September 2004.
Tomur Peak, in the Tianshan Mountains, is the only place where a group of leopards has been found by the team, said Cheng Yun, coordinator of Xinjiang Conservation Fund (XJCF).
It used to be home to about 800 leopards, and was one of the major gathering places for the big cats, dubbed "masters of the snowy mountains".
Sponsored by the International Snow Leopard Trust, World Wild Fund and XJCF, researchers have been studying the habitat and illegal trade of the leopards in a bid to evaluate and estimate the exact number of leopards in the area, the threats they are facing, and work out feasible measures to protect the endangered animal.
"A total of 118 imprints have been collected, mainly in the Tianshan Mountains, between September and November last year," Cheng said.
Trekking along 67 lines artificially marked on the Altay and Kunlun mountains, and Pamirs Plateau, totaling 48 kilometers, 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 paw-prints every kilometer on average.
"Their numbers are dwindling every year by several dozen or more," said Hu Kanping, an investigator with the team.
It is estimated that there are about 4,000 snow leopards left in the world, 2,000 of them in China's Xinjiang area. 

They are endangered because of 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 staple foods, is also decreasing rapidly because of overgrazing, forcing the leopards to go after livestock. Herders regularly shoot the leopards to protect their livestock and livelihoods.

Poaching is another threat to the snow leopard's existence.

"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," Hu added.
Er'daoqiao is the largest trading place for wildlife products, with most exports bound for overseas markets passing through Fujian, Guangdong and Shanghai ports, Hu said.
The team will conduct more research over the next two years using more advanced equipment before it compiles its report.
(China Daily, Xinhua News Agency July 4, 2005)


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