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First Photos of Rare Chinese Wildcat Unveiled

Dave Hansford
for National Geographic News
September 14, 2007
 
One of the world's most elusive predators has finally stepped into the limelight.

High on the Tibetan Plateau, the body heat of a rare Chinese mountain cat recently reached a remote sensor, triggering an automated research camera.

The images—the first pictures of the mountain cat taken in the wild—may finally reveal some of the secretive habits that have kept the creature a mystery for nearly a century.

Jim Sanderson, a cat specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Network, worked with a group of Tibetan assistants to set the camera trap near the village of Rongrah in a remote region of northeastern Sichuan Province in China (see map).

The team chose the location after hearing about sightings of the small, stocky cat by local villagers.

Amid photos of badgers and marmots, Sanderson's team eventually secured eight pictures of one of the world's least known felines.

The project was supported by the Regina Bauer Frankenberg Foundation for Animal Welfare and Conservation International-China.

"Pest" Control

The Chinese mountain cat had never really been researched in the wild, Sanderson said. No one knows its conservation status, although it is generally considered to be rare.

It was the last cat species to be described by biologists, who in 1892 misnamed it the "desert cat"—highlighting just how little was known about its habitat and distribution.

Recent surveys now suggest that the feline might be confined to the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

Although the Chinese government has created three wildlife reserves within the cat's present distribution, previous surveys found no cats in those areas.

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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