In the wild manul has an incredible ability to blend with its environment and remain undetected. If startled out in the open the animal often ‘freezes’ lying low to the ground with its ochre-colored fur providing perfect camouflage against rocks and dry grass. It can remain motionless for hours until it feels safe to retreat to the cover of rocks and vegetation.Because of its secretive and shy nature not much is known about manul’s ecology in the wild. The initial research efforts concentrated on defining manul’s geographic distribution range and population status. We now know that the species has a broad but patchy distribution from the Caspian Sea to eastern Mongolia to Western China most commonly occurring in the grassland steppe regions of central Asia where it inhabits elevations of up to 5,050 m in the Tibetan Plateau. Manul is found in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kashmir, Sayan Mountains and across much of the Transbaikal region, the Altai, Tyva, and Buryatia Republics in Russia. In the recent years additional sightings have been reported from Khojir National Park in Iran and Wangchuck Centennial Park in Bhutan. It inhibits rocky deserts, semi-desert areas and steppes. Manul’s habitat is typically characterized by an extreme continental climate with little rainfall, low humidity, and widely ranging temperatures that can drop below -50°C in winter.
A comprehensive study of manul in Mongolia by Steve Ross and his colleagues at the University of Bristol shed some light on the species ecology. According to the results of the study, manuls heavily depend on the availability of dens for shelter. Since manuls cannot excavate their own dens they use naturally occurring rock crevices and abandoned marmots’ dens. However, the cats don’t take just any dens, they prefer those that are located close to rocky and ravine habitats that provide shelter from their natural enemies. These rocky environments are usually rich in pikas and rodents and the rugged landscape makes it easier for manul to ambush its prey. Another interesting fact to emerge from the Mongolian study was that manul has an unusually large home range for a small felid. A single male can range over 150 km². Females’ ranges can be three times smaller.
Another hub of manul research is the Siberian Eco-Center in Russia. As part of their efforts to better understand how manul lives in the wild, Russian researchers were able carry out observations of a female that was raising a litter of kittens. For once the researchers caught a lucky break when this secretive cat established a maternal den underneath the floor of the abandoned cattle camp. One of the most interesting observations to come from this project was the fact that despite being widely recognized as a nocturnal predator, this female went hunting only during the day and spent the nights in the den with her kittens. A couple of years later another female established a den underneath one of the building at the camp. And again the researchers were able to observe her raising a litter of six (!) kittens. This time they learned that manul kittens remain with their mother for a much shorter period of time than previously thought. The kittens under observation became independent by the age of 3-4 months. It is not yet known whether the kittens disperse individually or stay together for a period of time.
There are anecdotal records of sightings of a group of seemingly young manuls. Manul is listed as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List Database. Despite manul’s efforts to avoid human presence, it still faces a number of human-driven threats. For starters its prey is disappearing. Pikas and marmots are being eradicated across Central Asia, as they are considered to be responsible for spreading bubonic plague. Manunl’s habitat is also being degraded by domestic stock and agriculture. And the cats themselves are hunted for their fur and often fall victim to pastoral and feral dogs.
In recent years manul has become very popular with internet audiences: there are numerous on-line fan clubs, photo albums and forum discussions. The hopes are high that such popularity and our increasing understanding of the species’ ecology will lead to implementation of effective conservation strategies to mitigate negative human impact on this independent and elusive feline.