The mountain cat is a solitary, mostly nocturnal hunter, listening for small mammals and birds moving under snow and earth.
Males and females meet only to mate—usually between January and February—and litters of two to four kittens are born the following May in underground dens.
The mountain cat's long, dense coat and thick underfur protect it from the fierce Tibetan snowstorms.
But the cat's defenses don't deter local hunters, who defy its protected status by selling pelts to fur traders for hats, accessories, and tourist curios.
The cat is also a victim of widespread "pest" poisoning campaigns aimed at its staple prey, a rabbitlike animal called the pika, which many Chinese farmers consider unwanted competition for grazing.
In 2002 scientists had called for the mountain cat's protection status to be elevated to the highest national and international ratings.
The outcry was prompted by a government announcement to conduct a five-year program of rodent poisoning in about 17.8 million acres (7.2 million hectares) of alpine meadow in the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu as well as in Tibet.
The Next Panda?
Luke Hunter, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Great Cats Program, which donated the camera trap that took the images, called the photos of the wild mountain cat "a tremendous achievement."
"One of the key challenges in conserving such poorly known carnivores is simply creating awareness," Hunter said.
"So few people even know of their existence that mounting a conservation effort can be huge challenge. I hope these wonderful pictures help to overcome that obstacle."
Sanderson agrees that the cat would benefit from increased awareness. The poorly understood animal should be considered every bit as uniquely Chinese as its more famous neighbor the giant panda, he said.
"Pandas go for a million [U.S.] dollars a year to rent and are very well protected by Chinese law, but there is virtually no protection for this cat," he said.
"Until now, even cat specialists had only seen this animal as skins or in less than perfect shape in zoos. Hopefully someday soon we'll see billboards in China similar to those with pandas on them.
"Certainly, local people in Rongrah village have stopped killing the cat and are reporting their sightings to us," Sanderson added.
For example, he said, an assistant named Achu in charge of the project's remote cameras was a former wildlife hunter.
Unlike big cats, Sanderson continued, "there is very little attention on small cats. It is as if they were left for me to focus all my attention on"
Sanderson said that the new images are a reward for four years of effort looking for the mountain cat.
"If there's one thing the cats have taught me," he said, "it's patience."
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