The Return of the Big Cats

A telecom network, camera traps, and AI: How technology is helping to restore biodiversity in China's northeast forest region

On the eve of the International Day for Biological Diversity, two sightings of the extremely rare white roe deer were reported in the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park. At around the same time, evidence of tiger dispersal was found in the western part of the park, heralding the rediscovery of the king of the jungle.

This was all made possible thanks to images captured by the pioneering monitoring system installed in the park – a system that's able to send data back to the park's headquarters in real time.

100 years of human progress and habitat reduction

The Amur Tiger is the largest of the big cats, an apex predator that lives in the forests in the eastern edges of Russia and northeast China. As each female Amur Tiger requires a 500 km2 area of forest to breed, they are indicative of the overall health of the region's ecosystem. However, habitat loss due to human activity over the last century has seen their numbers dwindle to less than 600 in the wild.

In 2015, scientists from Beijing Normal University and Russia's Land of the Leopard National Park began monitoring these animals in the hope of ensuring their survival. They found that at least 38 Amur tigers and 84 Amur leopards still roamed the China-Russia border. Of these, 27 tigers and 42 leopards were found on the China side in Hunchun, Jilin and its surrounding areas. However, they were concentrated in a narrow corridor of just 4,000 km2.

Penned in by the sea to the east and south and railway infrastructure and marshlands to the north, the cats have to expand westwards into China's northeast forests if they are to survive.

Change, hope, and the return of the big cats

To ensure that the tigers and leopards can return to their historical habitats, ecologists are hard at work restoring the forests of northeast China.

In August 2017, the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park was officially inaugurated. Taking in parts of Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces along the China-Russia border, the park represents the only settlement area with a breeding population of wild Amur tigers and Amur leopards in China.

Covering 14,600 km2, it forms a suitable environment for the cats to expand their territories, in turn creating one of the highest pockets of biodiversity in the northern hemisphere.

It also represents a pioneering approach to protecting biodiversity. And the process to doing so begins with collecting information – where the animals are living, how they are hunting, behavioral patterns, and more. Earlier research efforts had seen scientists and conservationists install camera traps in the wild. But these cameras needed to be maintained, their batteries replaced, and their memory cards switched out – time- and labor-intensive processes that frequently resulted in data and images that were several months old, making it difficult for conservationists to make accurate decisions.

  • 14,600km2

    covered by LTE networks

  • 1,000,000+

    images of various wildlife, and habitats captured in 18 months

Now we don't need to collect the data in person. All information is transmitted to us in the blink of an eye. We then use big data analytics and AI to reorganize and parse animal species and understand the status of their populations and habitats. It has made a world of difference to our research and marks a turning point in our work. Dr. Feng Limin
National Forestry and Grassland Administration Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard Monitoring and Research Center, China

In the past, it was time and energy-consuming to patrol the forest. However, with technology, patrolling efficiency has improved and human interference on the life of tigers and leopards has reduced. For us forest rangers, you could say that a signal is our lifeline. Liu Guoqing
Local forest ranger

Technology lights the way

Several habitat preconditions are necessary for tigers and leopards to prosper – a sufficiently large landscape connected by natural corridors for roaming plus a complete food chain. To protect these cats, conservationists need to understand and monitor population dynamics, habitats, the relationships between different species, and the influence of human activity. In partnership with the National Forestry and Grassland Administration Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard Monitoring and Research Center, a Sky-Earth monitoring system was established in the park, making it the world's first real-time conservation system of its type.

Aerial view of the LTE hybrid network

Powered by a 700M wire-wireless LTE hybrid network built by Huawei and Jishi Media, the system comprises three parts: field data collection, real-time data transmission, and data analysis. Data from the camera traps and HD images in real-time include monitoring footage from road checkpoints and fire prevention systems. Sensors in the ground, air, and water provide detailed and accurate information about the ecosystem in the park. The system also helps conservationists maintain a clear line of communication through voice and video.

By using the forest's existing fire towers and the 700 MHz frequency band, we brought connectivity to the forest without environmental impact. The base stations in the mountains connect to create a net. We can use the camera traps, which use this net, to observe wildlife in real time. Zhao Xinsheng
Engineer, Huawei

Since the end of 2020, coverage of the LTE park monitoring network system has reached the entire area of the natural reserve. With many tens of thousands different monitoring terminals working in a wired-wireless hybrid network dotted all across the park. This has allowed conservation efforts to become more accurate, intelligent, and efficient - three capabilities that are necessary to fully protect these endangered animals and help restore their majesty in the wild.

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Real-time camera trap footage

Humans and nature working towards harmony

Each year through camera footage, conservationists are discovering multiple litters of cubs in the tiger and leopard populations of northeast China, giving hope to those who work to protect the future of these majestic animals.

Huawei will continue working with the National Forestry and Grassland Administration Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard Monitoring and Research Center to improve pattern recognition technology, big data analytics, and 5G, so that the technology can be rolled out in national parks across China.

The return of the king of the jungle is a sign that the forest is recovering – the health of an ecosystem is often reflected by how well its apex predator is faring. In this case, the signs are good. As we move forward, we hope more partners will join us on this journey to create technology that allows nature and humanity to exist in harmony.

Some of the images provided by National Forestry and Grassland Administration Amur Tiger and Amur Leopard Monitoring and Research Center