China plans to build a national park 60 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park as a sanctuary for highly-endangered Siberian tigers and Amur leopards.
The Jilin provincial forestry department said on Thursday that the national park plan has been approved by the central authorities. It is designed to encompass 14,600 square km in northeastern provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang, bordering Russia's Primorsky.
Fan Zhiyong, Species Program Director with WWF Beijing, said the national park initiative is helpful in linking separate wildlife protection areas in the region, which would pave the way for wider China-Russia cooperation in wildlife protection in the region.
A comprehensive plan and pilot for the national park is expected to be carried out before 2020.
The Jilin provincial government has vowed to start preliminary work to prepare for national park management by the end of 2017.
Due to excessive logging in the 1950s, the ecosystem in the area was degraded, driving wild Siberian tigers to near extinction. A field survey jointly carried out by scientists from China, Russia and the United States in 1998 found evidence of only 6 to 9 wild Siberian tigers in the area.
With a logging ban in full effect in northeast China since April 2015 and decades of natural protection efforts, the number of tigers has rebounded. Experts estimated that there are currently five wild Siberian tiger families, or 27 in total, living in Jilin.
However, space limitations within nature reserves in China and Russia have restricted the natural growth of the species in the wild.
Ge Jianping, deputy director of Beijing Normal University and a tiger expert, said there are at least 35 tigers and 70 leopards in protected areas covering 4,000 square km. The area is far from enough space to accommodate the wild carnivores.
He said geological conditions on the Chinese side are more favorable than across the border for the endangered species.
"It is vital for China to make a long-term mechanism in order to consolidate and sustain the progress in protecting wild Siberian tigers and Amur leopards," he said.
WWF expert Fan said the planned national park is not only important for the survival of the endangered species but also for the protection of biodiversity in the northern temperate zone.
According to the forestry department, a monitoring and rescue center for wild tigers and leopards will be established along with other scientific and research facilities as the national park plan is implemented.
The national park is expected to become a channel for international exchange in wild animal protection, said Lan Hongliang, director of the Jilin Forestry Department.
He said national park management can help boost China's cooperation with international organizations, improve transparency in information exchanges and law enforcement, and break barriers in cross-border ecological corridors for wildlife.
China hopes national park management will be more efficient than current government-led wildlife protection.
The country's first national park pilot started last year in the Sanjiangyuan area in southwest China's Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to protect the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Lancang (Mekong) rivers. It is expected to officially open in 2020.