Wildcats found in India gain international conservation status at CMS COP14

Eurasian lynx, a medium-sized wild cat called ee locally in Ladakhi. Chamba's account of the Eurasian lynx is just one of the many efforts to document wildlife in Ladakh. Photo by Stanzin Chamba.

Eurasian lynx, a medium-sized wild cat called ee locally in Ladakhi. Chamba's account of the Eurasian lynx is just one of the many efforts to document wildlife in Ladakh. Photo by Stanzin Chamba.

  • The Pallas’ cat and Central Asian lynx have been listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, a UN treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of migratory animals and their habitats.
  • There is limited information on the distribution and status of these cats in India. They also face several threats.
  • Some experts say the inclusion in the CMS appendix could improve transboundary cooperation to conserve the migratory cats, while others call for more support and funding within India.

Two wild cats found in India – Pallas’ cat and Central Asian lynx – have been included in the list of migratory species to be conserved under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) of Wild Animals at the recently concluded 14th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP14) to the Convention, held in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand. The species were included in the CMS Appendix II, which covers migratory species with unfavourable conservation status, requiring international cooperation for their conservation and management. This inclusion in Appendix II opens the door for better conservation of these migratory felids known for their elusive behaviour.

The Central Asian lynx (Lynx lynx isabellinus), a subspecies of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is found in Central Asia, including India’s trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh and is sparsely distributed. Its sightings have been rare. The medium-sized carnivorous cat species is also known as Tibetan lynx, Turkestan lynx or Himalayan lynx because of its distribution in these regions.

The Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul) is a small cold-adapted species named after Russian zoologist Peter Simon Pallas who first described it in 1776. In India, the Pallas’ cat has been recorded in Ladakh, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh.

Neeraj Mahar, project scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, said, “Inclusion of both lesser cats in the CMS Appendix II will certainly provide weightage globally and in India, especially in countries where manuls are being kept in captivity and poached for pelts. In India, both cats are rarely sighted species and there is very little information available on their distribution and status. Being a signatory country at the CMS, India needs to conserve both cats in its Himalayan and trans-Himalayan region and across its borders.”

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. Photo by Khenrab Phuntsog
Pallas’ 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. Photo by Khenrab Phuntsog.

Experts, for a long time, have been calling for targeted conservation efforts for these species as the population of both the cats in India appears to be declining.

“These two species have been facing myriad threats to their existence in several parts of their ranges. We have small populations of the two species in Ladakh with hotspots such as the Hanley Valley. Both of them have been facing challenges that are both natural and manmade, especially the free-ranging dogs,” Tsewang Namgail, a director and senior scientist at the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT), a Ladakh-based non-profit, told Mongabay-India.

Namgail said that with the inclusion in Appendix II, countries would be encouraged to collaborate across borders, share information, coordinate conservation efforts and implement measures to ensure the survival of these species throughout their range.

Read more: Ladakh’s small cats face resource competition, intimidation by free-ranging dogs

Central Asian lynx

The proposal to include the Central Asian lynx in the convention’s Appendix II noted that the Central Asian sub-species of the Eurasian lynx, among its cousins, is the least known subspecies and information on its distribution, abundance and trend is unavailable.

“Its conservation status has hence never been assessed according to the IUCN Red List (The International Union for Conservation of Nature) procedures. Its range however overlaps largely with the snow leopard and we hope to profit from the network established for snow leopard conservation to compile data on the lynx, too,” the proposal read.

In India, the medium-sized wildcat is found in Ladakh and feeds on small mammals and rodents such as Royal’s pika, Tibetan woolly hare, female or juvenile ungulates (because of their smaller size) and domestic sheep and goat. Central Asian lynx occurs in Central Asia from Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

A camera trap image of a Eurasian lynx at Hemis National Park in Ladakh. Photo by Forest, Ecology & Environment Department, Ladakh
A camera trap image of a Eurasian lynx at Hemis National Park in Ladakh. Photo from Forest, Ecology & Environment Department, Ladakh.

The convention laid down a step-by-step plan, according to which a baseline survey and a robust assessment of the conservation status need to be executed. The proposal suggested contacting range states to submit a proposal to include the Central Asian lynx in the CMS Central Asian Mammal Initiative (CAMI). Preparing the ground for the range-wide conservation through building networks and developing local capacities is needed to achieve these goals.

Mahar said that if this resolution on the Central Asian lynx can help get more international funds and collaborations to carry out research in India, it will help in building baseline data on the wildcat.

He suggested studying the lynx while estimating snow leopard populations in Indian Himalayan states. “During the snow leopard estimation exercise, the methods can be modified or developed to study the lynx as well, which will provide baseline data on the lynx and will further assimilate other aspects of the species,” he explained.

Yash Veer Bhatnagar, country representative at the IUCN, said, “In India, lynx have naturally been rare. We are in the extreme of the lynx occurrence. For any research to study or research totally on lynx can become a challenge as there are very few sightings. Some of these studies can come up from occupancy-based work where the researcher goes and tries to get the information about the occurrence from herders and forest staff.”

Pallas’ cat

The proposal for Pallas’ cat highlighted that the “Pallas’ cat has received far less attention than several larger species and their conservation has been relatively neglected.” The cat has an extensive but fragmented range from the South Caucasus through southwest Asia, Central Asia, Mongolia, the Russian Federation, and western China.

“The proposed listing on Appendix II of the Convention and development of the Concerted Action, will significantly increase the profile of the species among policymakers, formally require range state governments to consider Pallas’ cat conservation, provide a robust international conservation framework for action, and facilitate the raising of funds: taken together, these measures will mark a step-change in the conservation of Pallas’ at,” the proposal read.

The activities under the proposal included, the addition of the Pallas’ cat to CAMI, the development of an associated Programme of Work aligned with the Pallas’Cat Strategy and Action Plan 2018-2028, and the effective implementation of the Concerted Action and Programme of Work to enhance the conservation status of the species.

The proposed objectives also called for understanding and reducing human-caused mortality, because of free-ranging dogs or the poisoning, of Pallas’ cat.

The Concerted Action proposal has been developed by Pallas’ Cat International Conservation Alliance (PICA), IUCN Cat Specialist Group and Manul Working Group (MWG), which collectively include a comprehensive network of conservationists, researchers, and others involved in the conservation of this charismatic carnivore.

“Now, there are chances of better coordination and cooperation among ranging countries as both species were discussed thoroughly during CMS COP14. Both species might get mileage in Himalayan countries like Bhutan, India and Nepal. But first and foremost, there is a need to start studying both cats since basic information lags in India; a country like Nepal has an upper hand in manul research. We (MWG) have already highlighted needs and concerns during Pallas’ Cat Global Action Planning Group Meeting, 2019 where we developed a global action plan for manul,” Mahar said. He is a part of Manul Working Group, and has also co-authored an article on Pallas’ Cat status review and conservation strategy.

“Scientists and conservationists have already started working in collaboration through PICA and MWG. Now with CMS COP14, there are more options of (legal) collaboration among the signatory countries with involvement of respective governments and ministries,” he added.

Mixed expectations from the move

Although the developments during the CMS COP14 are considered steps in the right direction towards conserving the two wildcats found in India, some wildlife experts feel that this move is not enough to tackle the challenges faced by these species.

SLC-IT’s Namgail said that since the species that were added to the Appendix II at COP13 the year before, haven’t received much international attention or an increase in funding for their conservation, expectations from the declarations at COP14 are low. “Some of the species that are already on the Appendix I and II of the CMS, such as the snow leopard, the Himalayan brown bear and the Ladakh urial, which were added to Appendix II at COP13 haven’t received much international attention. The snow leopard has also been declared as the state animal of the union territory Ladakh but, so far, we haven’t seen any increase in funding to implement ecological studies and conservation programmes,” he added, calling for more support and funding within India for the two cats.

“Many of these species listed on Appendix II of CMS, are also listed on the Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), but not much attention is paid to ensure their long-term survival. So, if their listing in national legislations does not help much in mobilising funds and conservation efforts, one cannot expect much from these international treaties,” he added.

Mahar added that while he does not see a paradigm shift on the extent of protection, the move is still beneficial for the conservation of the cats. “IUCN Cat Specialist Group and Manul Working Group (MWG) have been working on this (Pallas’ Cat) proposal for a long time. We have already provided an apex protection guard under the legal framework of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. However, more collaborations and an influx of international funds will help in the ecological studies and conservation of both cats in India.”

Read more: The poorly studied Eurasian lynx in Ladakh needs more research for conservation


Banner image: Eurasian lynx, a medium-sized wild cat, locally known as ee in Ladakhi. Photo by Stanzin Chamba.

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