“As long as people will shed the blood of innocent creatures there can be no peace, no liberty, no harmony between people. Slaughter and justice cannot dwell together”
Isaac Bashevis Singer
These captivating, incredibly furry little cats manage to survive the winters of some of the coldest regions on earth outside the Arctic Circle. When they can hold onto their coats, that is. Unbelievably appealing, though I think a little grumpy looking sometimes, they are not much bigger than the average domestic cat, and were once wrongly thought to be the progenitors of the sleeky, long-haired domesticated Persian cat. Also known as manul, steppe cat or rock wildcat, Pallas’ cats are now in desperate trouble.
As you can imagine, that beautiful, luxurious coat has been much in demand over the centuries. Perfectly suited to its owner, enabling it to survive the harsh winters of the steppes, it is highly valued by local fur traders for the same reasons. The warmth and durability properties of the coats are legendary. As many as fifty thousand cats were killed every year for their pelts in the early 1900′s, severely depleting their numbers. Annual numbers of deaths are now far less, nevertheless, the killing continues. Despite hunting being now banned altogether, it has not ceased, and Pallas’ cats are still an eagerly sought after ‘commodity’. Fur is used to make hats, gloves and clothing for the Chinese and Russian markets. In Mongolia, traders have found a loophole in the law (the species can be legally hunted for “household purposes”) which they abuse with consummate ease, and which, at best, is poorly enforced; and legal permits to hunt the cats, available upon application, are freely dispensed without proper investigation.
Then, as we have all come to expect, thriving, ridiculous, ill-founded superstition rears its ugly head again; Pallas’ cats are slain for their fat and other body parts for use in Traditional medicine within Mongolia and Russia, and no doubt China. Locals believe their body fat relieves frostbite. Uses for other body parts are not known.
An equally serious threat to the species is the government-sanctioned poisoning of pika, the Pallas’s main prey. As a result, the cats either lack food or suffer secondary poisoning.
Pallas’ cats are not quite as big and heavy as you might think they are. Being all bolstered out with that thick, long fur gives one a false impression. Weighing in at roughly ten pounds, they reach a height of fourteen inches at most, and have a body length of twenty-six inches. The long, striped, bushy tail can add another twelve inches to the overall size of the animal and can be wrapped around the body to keep it warm.
That gorgeous, dense, woolly fur is twice as long on the underside, which may well provide additional insulation when crawling along the ground hunting its prey. The fur colour ranges from pale grey to a faint tawny red. The white tips of the fur give the cat an icy, powdered look which helps camouflage it on the snow-covered ground. The species is instantly recognisable with its flat head, low-set ears and high-set eyes. These are thought to be adaptations allowing it to peer unnoticed over rocks and ledges when hunting. They also help when stalking prey as the cat flattens its body on the ground.
The Pallas’ cat’s eyes differ from other felids. They are round, not slit-like, and react like human eyes by contracting when faced with strong light rays. As with all cats, they possess a third eyelid (nictitating membrane). In the case of Pallas’ cats, this may be crucial for protection against extreme weather conditions such as severe winds and dust storms.
Unlike other felids, Pallas’ cat is diurnal and crepuscular. Their days are spent under cover of rock crevices and in small hollows under stones. They have also been known to inhabit the burrows of other wildlife, such as foxes and marmots. They hunt mostly, but not exclusively, on the open grasslands where there is an abundance of small prey. Their skilful hunting techniques include stalking in the open, flushing prey out of cover and ambushing others outside their burrows and nests. They are skilful climbers, too, and scale the rocky crevices with an agility you would not expect looking at the cat’s bulk. This ‘bulk’ also fluctuates with the seasons, with the males weighing less during the breeding season and the females weighing less when rearing their young.
The Breeding season takes place between December and March. The male attracts the female with sounds resembling a mix of a yapping bark and a hoot. After a gestation period of sixty-six to seventy-five days (this has been recorded in captivity), kittens, weighing just over three ounces, will be born. The litter size is between one and six, more commonly three or four. The kittens are born with dark, fluffy coats with noticeable stripes on the side which diminish as the kittens reach two months of age, or thereabouts, and moult. They are independent at four to five months, and reach full size at about eight months.
Kitten mortality is high in this species, with only thirty-two per cent of the kittens surviving to adulthood. Pallas’ cats have been known to live up to twelve years of age in captivity and assumed to live less in the wild.
Pallas’ cat is named after the German naturalist , Peter Simon Pallas, who was responsible for describing this, and several other species, during a late 18th century Russian expedition.
Grasslands and rocky montane steppe regions up to three thousand metres.
Central Asia – Including Mongolia, China and the Tibetan Plateau.
What they eat
Pikas, small rodents, ground birds and the occasional marmot.
Over-hunting and illegal poaching for fur and medicine. Capture for the illegal international pet trade. Depletion of their prey base by the government sanctioned poisoning of their prey, and exposure to the poison themselves. Plus, they are often mistakenly shot as marmots. Diseases passed on by domestic cats and dogs have also affected populations.
Status: Near Threatened
Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Near Threatened (likely to become endangered in the near future). The species is also listed in CITES Appendix II. Hunting of Pallas’s cat is prohibited in all countries across its range, except in Mongolia where they can be legally hunted for “household purposes”. Hunters must obtain permits from local authorities, but enforcement of the law is very shaky and the situation is poorly controlled.
Numbers in the wild are not known. The range of the Pallas’ cat is vast and populations are difficult to assess. There are, however, many of the species in captivity across the world, where breeding programs have been moderately successful. Sadly, in general, survival rates are low due to infections. The cats would not have previously been exposed to any of these viruses, therefore have not developed any immunity to them.
N.B. This article was first published as “Endangered Species No. 100” in error. It is, in fact, “Endangered Species No.99”. My apologies for any confusion.