By Kaitlin Lebon
High in the mountains of central Asia, the Pallas’s cat lurks under rocky cover, evading predators. The Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul), also known as the manul, is a small, fluffy wildcat with a tendency to scowl. I found it a crime that so few people knew about the hours of hilarity these critters could bring with a simple Google or YouTube search. An entire post dedicated to this grumpy cat seemed a way to rectify the situation.
Weighing a mere 6 to 11 pounds, these solitary predators are about the size of an average housecat. Pallas’s cats reside at high elevations, ranging from 1400 to upwards of 16,500 feet. Although often photographed in interesting scenarios (below), they are ferocious little predators that feast upon pikas, voles, birds, and hares. Despite the appearance of thick fur, this wildcat is rarely found in deep snow for extended periods of time. The Pallas’s cat instead prefers to reside in drier areas with low rainfall.
Thanks to their expressive features, the Pallas’s cat has become an Internet favorite. Pallas’s cats have wide-set ears, and large eyes with round pupils. Their mottled brown color serves as ideal camouflage for blending in with the rocky steppes they preferentially inhabit amongst high Asian grasslands. They use marmot burrows and rocky outcrops, both as protection from predation and as a place to raise their young. These cats can go from looking like something you’d want to cuddle for days to a literal representation of how I feel on most Monday mornings. Still not convinced that Pallas’s cats are pretty darn cool? Watch one in action here.
Pallas’s Cats are hunted for their fur, which is traded illegally in China. Traditional medicinal practices in Mongolia and Russia prize their parts for popular treatments. Many Pallas’s cat deaths are accidental, however, and occur through pika eradication programs used by farmers in the high grasslands. These programs utilize poisons to reduce competition for grassland resources between rodents and livestock, and these wildcats, who often target small rodents as prey, are inadvertently poisoned.Why, you ask, would a marine and environmental affairs blog focus on such a strange little creature? According to the IUCN Redlist, the cats are near-threatened, meaning their population, while not currently threatened, is decreasing enough that they could approach extinction in the near future. Only an estimated 15,000 remain in the wild, although these numbers are hard to verify due to the Pallas’s cat’s elusive nature. Their habitat has become increasingly fragmented, effectively isolating populations.
Pallas’s cats pose a conservation conundrum in comparison to many other threatened or near-threatened animals. Although this cat is undoubtedly charismatic, it is rare to find them in many zoos or other conservation-based rehabilitation programs. This is because of their specialized immune system, which is adapted for high altitudes, but unfit for the increased number of bacteria and viruses residing in lower habitats. While Pallas’s cats will breed with relative ease in captivity, they have unusually high mortality rates from disease and infections. As a result, it is difficult to increase populations using captive breeding programs alone.
Even though the Pallas’s cat’s natural range lies far beyond the borders of the United States, the U.S. is host to numerous threatened animals equally (or almost) as awesome as these wildcats. These creatures, much like the Pallas’s cat, require conservation efforts. If you think it’s important to save cool creatures in our own country, then you are in luck. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) allows the government to take action to protect threatened and endangered species both inside and outside of the U.S., and currently lists over 2,270 species.
Under the ESA, an organism can be characterized as either endangered or threatened. An endangered species is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A species is considered threatened if “it is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.” The ESA has had several conservation management success stories, such as the bald eagle, grizzly bear, and gray whale, which have all been delisted thanks to careful protective measures taken to stabilize dwindling populations. Federal regulations protect more than just the stereotypical charismatic critters like whales, including amphibians, snails, insects, and a variety of plants. Other federal regulations that help to protect the environment, species, and human health include:
- Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972)
- National Environmental Policy Act (1969)
- Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1988)
- Shore Protection Act (1988)
These acts and regulations exist, at least for now, to protect important species from extinction. Once something is gone, it is gone forever, which is something to consider regardless of the political climate at any given time. Conservation, in some way, shape, or form needs to continue because without the help of these regulations, the bald eagle or the gray whale might not still be around today. Conservation efforts, although important in our own country, are also important internationally to help species like the Pallas’s cat or the panda. Maybe with continued conservation efforts, the Pallas’s cat will smile more often.
Ross, S., Harris, S., & Munkhtsog, B. (2012). Determinants of mesocarnivore range use: Relative effects of prey and habitat properties on Pallas’s cat home-range size. Journal of Mammalogy, 93(5), 1292-1300.
Ketz-Riley, C., Ritchey, J., Hoover, J., Johnson, C., & Barrie, M. (2003). Immunodeficiency Associated with Multiple Concurrent Infections in Captive Pallas’ Cats (Otocolobus manul). Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, 34(3), 239-245.
Ross, S., Harris, S., & Munkhtsog, B. (2010). Dietary composition, plasticity, and prey selection of Pallas’s cats. Journal of Mammalogy, 91(4), 811-817.