Pallas' Cat

The Pallas’ cat: A small wildcat found in the high-altitude snowy wilderness habitats of some of the remotest places on the earth

Print edition : June 04, 2021

A Pallas’s cat in the Hustai National Park in Mongolia looking as if it is wearing a coat of snow. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

The Pallas’s cat was once hunted for its fur but is legally protected since hunting was banned in December 1988. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

The most fascinating feature about the cat is its ability to survive in some of the remotest places on the earth. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

A sable. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

A Mongolian reindeer. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

Przewalski’s horse, named after the Russian geographer Nikolay Przewalski. Mongolia is arguably the only spot in the world where there are still wild horses Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

The Bactrian, or double-humped, camel. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

Mangolian gazelle. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

A Mangolian yurt. Photo: Shefiq Basheer Ahammed

The photographer Shefiq Basheer Ahammed.

The Pallas’ cat inhabits pristine high-altitude snowy wilderness habitats where it can blend with the landscape. This makes it a challenge for anyone who wants to photograph the cat or understand its ecology and behaviour.

THE Pallas’ cat is one of the smallest wildcats of the world. It is named after the German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, who studied many unusual animals and plants in Europe and was the first person to describe the cat. His authentic observations attracted the attention of many naturalists. He called it mysterious because of its appearance and secretive behaviour. The cat has proved elusive to wildlife scientists and photographers and is possibly one of the least photographed wildcats, with little known about its ecology and behaviour. The Pallas’s cat has a distinct appearance. Its face is flatter compared with other wildcats, big and small. Its eyes are green with a black rim around them and its cheeks have black stripes. It has long, dense and white fur, which changes to a light brown in summer.

Some 30 small wildcat species can be found in different kinds of terrain and in the jungles of the world. The Pallas’s cat is distributed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia (Siberia), Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India (Sikkim and Ladakh), Mongolia and China (including Tibet). The most fascinating feature about the cat is its ability to survive in some of the remotest places on the earth. Its territory overlaps that of the equally elusive snow leopard, though that cat has been well researched and documented. Mongolia is the Pallas’s cat’s stronghold. They were once hunted for their fur, but the cats are legally protected since hunting was banned in December 1988. Their prey are birds, reptiles, pikas (a small rodent-like mammal) and rodents. Large raptors and red foxes are their predators.

The Pallas’s cat inhabits pristine high-altitude snowy wilderness habitats where rocky protrusions are in abundance interspersed with steppes. The cat can be seen up to a height of 12,000 feet (3,658 metres). Meandering tracks and bridle paths lead to the cat’s den, which is so high up among the rocks and crevices that it seems to touch the sky. Usually, the cat merges with its environment so well that it looks like a rocky outcrop. Thus camouflaged, it can ambush its prey or hide from predators.

Guides assure wildlife photographers and film-makers who arrive in Mongolia in search of the cat that they will track the cat even though it is elusive. However, the guides warn visitors that they must have epic patience and be prepared for the unpredictable weather.

Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, a globetrotting wildlife photographer from Kochi in Kerala, travelled to Mongolia in the peak of winter in March 2017. He first spent four days trekking and camping in the Hustai National Park, which is easily accessible from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. He spent 11 days in the Altai Mountains area, which is some 500 km west of the park. The local guides assured him that he would get sightings of the elusive cat. Although the guides only spoke Mongolian and Russian well and their English was not good, they were able to communicate with foreigners. They were smart, fully equipped to withstand any adverse change in the weather and, through their considerable field experience, knowledgeable about the behaviour of the Pallas’s cat. Shefiq’s guide told him that the cats were active during the day and evening and that was why they had to start trekking by dawn. Apart from rocky caves, it takes shelter in marmot burrows. He said the cat could be tracked using radio telemetry and camera traps but sometimes it escaped their notice. The guides also followed the cat’s tracks in the snow.

The landscape made Shefiq shudder. There was no greenery at all. He asked the guide how they would be able to find the Pallas’s cat in a cold desert like this. The guide said that Shefiq would first have to get acclimatised to the weather as the temperature was minus 50 degrees Celsius. He would need to wear many layers of warm clothes and to practise some horse riding as trekking would be difficult when the weather was so harsh and terrain so hostile. The guide assured Shefiq that the cat could be located even if it might initially be difficult to spot. The guide explained that a cat sitting on the snow-covered rocks high up in the mountains would be hard to make out because of its white coat.

The first two days Shefiq came up empty-handed. There were some animals moving in the dry steppe, mainly rodents. The landscape otherwise was just an ocean of snowy wilderness. The only other point of interest was the weather, which changed from windy to stormy to howling hurricanes. When the weather turned bad, they took shelter among the rocks. On the third day, the guide, looking into the distance through his binoculars, told Shefiq to get his cameras ready. Excited, Shefiq tried to spot the cat through the binoculars, but he could not make it out because it was in perfect camouflage. But he finally spotted it with the help of the guide and took pictures of it too.

Shefiq had six sightings in all during his 15-day stay in Mongolia. He spent six hours daily searching for the cat, either trekking or on horseback. Some places were so steep that it was only possible to go there on horses. Sharing his Pallas’s cat experiences with this writer, he recalled: “I could not make out the cat at first; I thought that I was looking at just a piece of rock. The head of the cat was smeared with snow. In fact, it had a cap-like shape, and the cat appeared as if it was attired in snow. Only after distinguishing the cat did I look through the binoculars again and then I saw that the facial hair of the cat had dewdrops that looked like icicles. It was such a magnificent sight.” He noticed the cat’s facial expressions. He said that the first time he saw the cat, it was in a pensive mood. In the five other sightings over the following days, he felt the cat had different moods. Sometimes, it seemed curious. On other occasions, it appeared calm and unruffled even though strangers had intruded into its rightful territory. On one occasion, the cat suddenly vanished from sight. Shefiq waited for nearly two hours in the chilly winter, but could not spot it again. The guide said that there could be secret passages through the snow and rocks exclusively known to the cats. Shefiq said that it was a formidable challenge to follow the cat when the weather kept changing. The wind had a high velocity and sometimes suddenly turned into a shrieking hurricane with thunderous effect. There were occasions when their tents were blown away. Such incidents were scary, but the guides had given visitors sufficient warning about the trials they would have to experience on the trek. Using the camera too was tough. Although well protected in thick woollen gloves, one’s fingers would go numb and it became a struggle to handle the camera. Special boots were needed for the trek. Only when they returned to the tent they could relax. The guides would have prepared delicious food: Noodles and rice with non-vegetarian side dishes and enough vodka to keep one warm. At night, they slept in sleeping bags and under many layers of blankets. The wake-up call would come at 5 a.m. sharp along with hot coffee.

The Hustai National Park is home to a variety of animals, Shefiq said, including the endangered Przewalski’s horse, named after the Russian geographer Nikolay Przewalski. Mongolia is arguably the only spot in the world where there are still wild horses. Wild horses galloping in the park were a magnificent sight. The horses were at one time extinct in the wild but could be reintroduced into the landscape as a result of successful captive breeding programmes and are now flourishing. The double-humped, or Bactrian, camels were another stunning sight. They are native to Central Asia and are well protected by the government. There are around 1,000 of them left on the planet. Mongolian gazelles can be seen in large herds. Mongolia has 145 species of mammals, including wild sheep, Argali sheep, Siberian ibexes and Mongolian reindeer, and 450 subspecies of birds. The Altai Mountains, an area where the borders of Mongolia, Russia, China and Kazakhstan meet, is an unforgettable visual spectacle. It is an ethnically diverse region. The southern part of the Altai Mountains merges with the Gobi desert.

The guide said that there had been occasions when photographers and scientists had had to leave without even a fleeting sight of the Pallas’s cat.

Tom McCarthy, an authority on the ecology and behaviour of snow leopards who spent more than a decade in Mongolia, told this writer: “In my snow leopard studies in Mongolia where there are many Pallas’s cats, I never saw any in the wild. But I saw the skin of one in Gobi [Gurvansaikhan] National Park [the Gobi Desert] office which [had been] confiscated.” He recalled that the cats were as shy and elusive as the snow leopard. He is a scientist with the United States–based Panthera, a globally renowned cat specialist group. Its leading light is George Schaller, who has done remarkable work on the snow leopard and other big cats, including the tigers of India and the lions of Africa.

This writer asked Paul Williams, a celebrated wildlife film-maker, director and producer, about his experience in sighting the Pallas’s cat. He replied: “It took many weeks for my team to spot it. We depended on the eyes of the nomadic people who worked with us.” He said that although he was working on a BBC documentary series called Big Cats he wanted to give their diminutive relatives a fair share of limelight and that is why the Pallas’s cat and other small cats of the world in different jungles were included in the series. Virtually nothing was known about the movement and social organisation of the Pallas’s cat, he said, which is locally called the small ghost of the mountain. To locate them, he and his team used camera traps and remote control camera vehicles.

He said that one of the turning points during the filming was when they located five kittens that were a few weeks old. The young ones were full of energy but would suddenly freeze when a predator such as an eagle passed overhead. He recalled: “The Pallas’s cat looks like a mythical creature deep in thought. They are one of the most characterful animals I have ever seen and filmed.”

Williams had sought the help and advice of Bariushaa Munkhtsog, a senior scientist of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, for his film on the Pallas’s cat. Munkhtsog has been studying the snow leopard and the Pallas’s cat for nearly two decades. He said that the cat’s dens were mainly for raising kittens and were located at high points in in rocky caves so that they would be protected from predators. Maybe only small cats have dens at such high points. He has co-authored many scientific papers on the ecology and behaviour of the Pallas’s cat. He and his team have had the opportunity to observe nearly 100 high-altitude dens of the cat.

Shefiq said that he had seen the Pallas’s cat in the Gobi Desert too but there its coat had a yellowish tint.

Neeraj Maher, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, Uttarakhand, who has been studying the cat since 2013, said that wildlife photographers and enthusiasts who wanted to see the Pallas’s cat in India should visit Ladakh. Neeraj Maher participated in the Pallas’s cat conservation action plan that the Government put together in 2019. He said that the cat’s status and distribution in the trans-Himalayan region was unknown and that transboundary collaboration of stakeholders would contribute to its protection in the region.

Experts say that Spiti has a conducive habitat for the cat though only some chance sightings have been recorded there. The pastoralists of Ladhak’s Changthang region love the cat, which they see while grazing their livestock.

Anna Barashkova, a Russian expert on the cat, said that development projects and the conversion of steppes into arable land in many countries of the former Soviet Union had had an adverse impact upon the population of the cat. She warned that climate change was likely to affect this small cat.

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessed that the Pallas’s cat was near threatened. The population had decreased because of prey base depletion and habitat degradation. The Canada-based Pallas’s Cat International Conservation Alliance is working with the IUCN and other like-minded organisations to come up with conservation strategies. The first global action plan meeting was convened in Sweden in November 2018.

G. Shaheed is a former Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.

Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, who has travelled widely in India and abroad, is a motor vehicles inspector in Kochi.

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