- With more tourists, including photographers from around the country and the world, visiting Ladakh, reported sightings of the woolly Pallas’s cat have increased.
- Additionally, research suggests that Pallas’s cats reproduce more readily when prey is abundant so increased availability may be linked to their increasing presence, though scientists are uncertain about the linkage. Prey overall is limited but may have increased in certain parts, they speculate.
- The Pallas’s cat is a cold-adapted species, about the size of a domestic cat. It inhabits the high peaks of the Himalayas and was named after Peter Simon Pallas, who first described it in 1776 based on specimens collected near Lake Baikal, Russia.
While on patrol in Ladakh’s Hanle village, in 2002, Khenrab Phuntsog, now a 45-year-old wildlife guard with the Ladakh forest department, spotted a cat-like creature descending the hillside. “When I viewed it through binoculars, its shape resembled a cat’s. Its thick, woolly, and dark-coloured fur set it apart, making it distinct from any cat I had seen before. Because of its fluffy fur, this cat appeared larger than its actual size.”
“At the time, we had no idea which cat species it was. It was only after returning to the office and discussing it with my colleagues that I learned it was a Pallas’s cat. This marked our first encounter with this unique feline, and since then, we have encountered it in many locations, contributing to its conservation,” shared Phuntsog who has 23 years of experience patrolling Ladakh’s wildlife areas. “Since 2002, I have rescued two Pallas’s cat cubs that were reported to be abandoned by their mother.”
The Pallas’s cat or manul (Otocolobus manul) is a cold-adapted species, about the size of a domestic cat. It inhabits the high peaks of the Himalayas and is known by various local names, including ribilik, tak shan, andsukthang in Ladakh. It was named Pallas’s cat after Peter Simon Pallas, who first described it in 1776 based on specimens collected near Lake Baikal, Russia.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, Pallas’s cats are primarily found in Central Asia, with their range extending to western Iran, Mongolia, China, Russia (on the border of Mongolia and China), Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In these regions, these cats inhabit mountainous plains and semi-desert foothills. The Pallas’s cat is included in Appendix II of CITES and is protected in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Scientists note that the Pallas’s cat’s distinctive appearance includes a muscular body, short legs, dense fur, flat ears, and a black spot on its head. Unlike most small cats, they have round pupils. Pallas’s cats inhabit vacant marmot burrows and rocky crevices within steppe and grassland ecosystems, where they give birth to their cubs. They are most active during the morning and evening hours. Despite their small size, their territory can span up to 100 kilometres. They can give birth to as many as eight cubs at a time and can survive in the wild for up to six years. Pallas’s cats yelp, growl and purr.
The presence of Pallas’s cats in Ladakh has been noted in Indian literature since the early 1970s. Currently, the species is confirmed in the Trans-Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Sikkim, albeit infrequently. In Ladakh, sightings have occurred in areas like Hanle, Staklung and Lal Pahari within the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, and also in Rupshu, at altitudes ranging from 3,000 to 4,800 metres in Sikkim, there was a single sighting at Tso Lhamo Plateau, at an elevation of 5,073 metres, marking the highest recorded altitude for a Pallas’s cat. Photographs of the species taken by tourists and nature photographers continue to be shared on social media. Although there was a report in 1998 regarding the species in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti area, it has not received official confirmation.
Regarding the cat’s presence in Ladakh, Pankaj Raina, Ladakh Wildlife Conservator, said, “Previously, it was believed that these cats were mainly found around the wetlands of Changthang, but recent experiences indicate that they are found in many parts of Ladakh.”
Referring to recent camera trap photos, Raina added, “During our surveys, we discovered their presence in many locations within Hemis National Park. Additionally, there have been sightings of Pallas’s cats in Kargil and Nubra, between Changthang.”
Based on these findings, Raina believes that more Palas’s cats are inhabiting Ladakh than previously estimated. He noted, “The locations where we found them in the Hemis region are situated at elevations of 3,000-4,000 metres above sea level, indicating that the Pallas’s cat is not exclusively tied to wetlands. They can also coexist in areas with pikas, voles, and marmots.”
More tourists, more sightings
Khenrab Phuntsog acknowledged that Pallas’s cats have become more visible recently, citing ecotourism (more people and hence more sighting reports) as one of the contributing factors. He said, “One reason for this could be the surge in ecotourism, with more people flocking to the areas where the Pallas’s cat resides.”
Raina concurred with Phuntsog and identifies other factors contributing to this increased visibility. He said, “Last year in Hanle, we observed two mothers, each with three cubs. Although one of the mothers was not found, the other one was repeatedly seen in the area with her offspring. This influx of visitors (and hence more eyes looking out for the cat) could be driving the increased sightings.”
Raina also pointed to the availability of prey as another factor. He elaborates, “When there is an increase in the number of prey species for these cats, it becomes easier for them to feed and raise their young. In one year, we observed a Pallas’s cat giving birth to triplets twice in Hanle. However, further research is needed to understand this phenomenon fully.” Experts are uncertain about the extent of the influence of prey availability – overall prey is limited but it may have increased in certain areas, they say.
Lobzang Visuddha, the president of the citizens’ organisation Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh, assists tourists in spotting wildlife in remote Ladakh areas. He noted that Hanle and Changthang are renowned locations for observing the Pallas’s cat. Vishuddha explained, “In the wetland areas of the Hanley Basin, Pallas’s cat finds an abundance of prey, which promotes rapid breeding when food is plentiful.”
He added, “Before 2022, this cat was not spotted as frequently. However, this year, photographers from around the country and the world flocked to capture images of these cats. Research suggests that Pallas’s cats reproduce more readily when prey is abundant, so the increased availability could explain the rise in numbers.”
Regarding the presence of the Pallas’s cat in other areas, Vishuddha said, “Residents generally coexist peacefully with these small cats, so they may not always report sightings. As a result, it is sometimes challenging to track where these cats are observed.”
Conservation opportunities and challenges
Pankaj Raina said that poaching does not pose a significant conservation challenge in Ladakh due to the predominance of Buddhism, which discourages hunting. The presence of the military deters poachers.
However, despite these positive factors, there still need to be challenges in conserving Pallas’s cats. Tsewang Namgyal, director and senior scientist of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, an NGO focused on wildlife conservation in Ladakh, discussed the challenges facing the conservation of small cats in Ladakh.
Namgyal noted that Pallas’s cats prefer rocky habitats but require grassy areas for hunting, as they prey on.
In describing the cat’s habitat, he observed, “Some of the roads in the area traverse rocky terrain, which serves as a habitat for these cats. This can disrupt their natural movements as they navigate between hunting sites and their dens. Unfortunately, this disruption often results in vehicle collisions on the road, endangering the cats. Moreover, the noise generated by passing vehicles disturbs their peaceful habitat.”
Namgyal further elucidates that the increasing influx of tourists poses a significant challenge to the conservation of these felines.
“While road signage aids tourists in safely navigating the area, its absence can lead travellers on bikes or in vehicles to inadvertently enter eco-sensitive zones where the Pallas’s cat also resides.”
“Addressing this issue is imperative for maintaining the delicate balance of the ecosystem and ensuring the safety of both tourists and wildlife in Ladakh,” he emphasised.
Climate change also presents a formidable challenge to conservation efforts. Raina emphasised, “Climate change is akin to a silent assassin. It brings more frequent rainfall and encourages the growth of vegetation. However, the specific impact on these small cats remains uncertain until further research is conducted. If their habitat experiences a shortage of food due to these changes, it will inevitably affect conservation efforts.”
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Mahar, Neeraj & Shrotriya, Shivam & Habib, Bilal & Takpa, Jigmet & Hussain, Syed. (2017). Recent records of the Pallas’s cat in Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, Ladakh, India. 65. 36-37.
Banner image: Pallas’s cat captured by a camera trap. Photo by Forest, Ecology & Environment Department, Ladakh.