the hunt for beijings wild cats - The hunt for Beijing's wild cats

BEIJING – Professor Luo Shu-Jin and her students from Peking University are rooting about in the bush in Yanqing district on the outskirts of Beijing, looking for signs of animal droppings.

In the distance looms the alpine skiing slopes of the Winter Olympics, white and gleaming in the sun – ready for the Games that will be held next month under some of the most stringent Covid-19 control measures.

But unlike the athletes, the creature Prof Luo is looking for would be able to slink in and out of Olympic venues as it pleases.

There are signs of it everywhere in the scrubland near the Guanting reservoir – droppings along the trail, and in the underbrush, the remains of a meal of pheasant – and Prof Luo is looking for a spot to set her trap.

Her quarry is the leopard cat, an elusive ambush predator no bigger than a house cat.

This winter, Prof Luo, an expert in feline genomics, and a team of researchers from the university have been catching these wild cats and fitting them with GPS collars to study how these animals live, hunt and survive so close to one of the world’s largest megacities.

They have discovered, for instance, that the cats really “enjoy” swimming, dipping into the freezing water at the nearby wetlands daily, even in the winter.

Diverse range of wildlife

Beijing is one of the few major capital cities with a species of wild cat – which experts say shows the city is home to a diverse range of wildlife – yet little is known about how these animals live in a metropolis of over 20 million people.

“The fact that a megacity like Beijing actually has wild leopard cats living so close to people is really interesting,” said Prof Luo.

The area where she has trapped the cats is about 3km from the nearest village and surrounded by farmland.

“We want to understand how these animals can survive in the periphery of such a big city, how they can survive in a human-dominated landscape, and not just survive but appear to be doing quite well.”

Leopard cats are one of the most widely distributed wild cats in continental Asia – found in countries ranging from China, to Singapore and India.