The Pallas’s cat or Manul (Otocolobus manul) is one of the most fiercely independent and enigmatic members of the feline family. No bigger than a domestic cat, it greets the world with an intense predator’s stare and a set of canines that are almost three times longer than those of your pet tabby. It lives in inhospitable environments, painstakingly avoids human presence and doesn’t tame in captivity.
While not much is known about the ecology of the species, we know that the Pallas’s cat has a broad but patchy distribution from the Caspian Sea to eastern Mongolia to Western China. It most commonly occurs in the grassland steppe regions of central Asia where it inhabits elevations of up to 5,050 meters in the Tibetan Plateau.
In October 2016, I traveled to the remote northern corner of China’s Sichuan province to look for the Pallas’s cat in its natural habitat on the Ruoergai grassland on the Eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau (story can be found here). This part of the world is a vast, sparsely populated steppe country in the foothills of the Himalayas at the average altitude of 3,500 meters above the sea level.
Led by Sid Francis from Sichuan Birding, I found the cat on my first night on the grassland at an abandoned rock quarry about 40 kilometers out of town.
It was a cold autumn night, with the wind howling across the steppe and the cat took refuge in a rock crevice in the wall of the quarry. It was snuggly curled up inside its stony layer, its fur all fluffed up against the cold.
According to wildlife experts, Pallas’s cat heavily depends on the availability of dens for shelter. And since it cannot excavate its own den, it uses abandoned marmots’ dens and naturally occurring rock crevices.
Master of camouflage
The Pallas’s cat has an incredible ability to blend with its environment and remain undetected. When startled out in the open, it often ‘freezes’ lying low to the ground with its ochre-coloured 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.
Pallas's Cat / Transbaikal region, "Dauria" Reserve~*💝*~Манул / Забайкальский край, Заповедник "Даурский"© Вадим Кирилюк#Манул #amursoftherussianfareast
The cat we spotted was perfectly concealed amongst the rocks. The only reason we knew it was there, was because its eyes reflected in the light of Sid’s powerful spotlight – two burning dots against the blackness of the night.
We slowly approached the quarry, taking care not to disturb the furry hunter. It didn’t seem to mind our presence and only bothered to glance in our direction once every few minutes. Perhaps it thought we couldn’t see it.
Eventually, we were able to approach within a few meters of the cat without interrupting its peaceful snooze. It is one of the most rewarding feelings to be so close to a wild animal, to be briefly accepted in its world.
After a while, we decided not to push the friendship and slowly returned to the car.
Wildlife of Ruoergai Grassland
Over the next few nights, we found the cat sleeping in the same crevice each night. Interestingly, it shared the quarry with another elusive feline – the Chinese Mountain cat.
During the daylight hours, we discovered one of the possible reasons for the abundance of wild cats on the plateau. The ground on the sides of the road was churned up with hundreds of Grassland Pika burrows – the cat’s favourite prey. Despite Tibetan nomads’ best efforts to eradicate pikas (they believe that the rodents spread bubonic plague), pika’s population seems to be booming in Ruoergai.
The landowners’ attempts to eradicate pikas are one of the main factors threatening the Pallas’s cat survival across its range. On top of that, the cat’s habitat is being degraded by livestock and agriculture and the animals themselves are hunted for their fur and often fall victim to pastoral and feral dogs. As a result, the Pallas’s cat is listed as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List Database.