Ghost of the grass­lands

It may look like an out­sized do­mes­tic tabby, but it has con­quered one of the most re­mote en­vi­ron­ments on Earth. BBC pro­ducer Paul Wil­liams plays hide and seek with Pal­las’s cat on the Mon­go­lian steppe

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - WORDS & PHOTOS BY PAUL WIL­LIAMS

A peak into the life of the Pal­las cat, which has con­quered one of the most re­mote en­vi­ron­ments on Earth

HIGH UP ON A HILL, A CAM­ERA PO­SI­TIONED ON A ROCKY OUTCROP RE­VEALED KIT­TENS

Ask some­one to name a wild cat and they’ll likely men­tion the tiger, lion or one of the other big cats. Or fail­ing that, the chee­tah or moun­tain lion, which tax­o­nom­i­cally speak­ing are small cats. Hardly any­one will re­fer to any of the other small cats, yet they make up 33 of the world’s 40 wild fe­lines. They in­clude some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing and beau­ti­ful of all car­ni­vores – and we were de­ter­mined to film as many as pos­si­ble.

Though our new BBC se­ries planned to in­clude spec­tac­u­lar footage of the ‘Big Seven’, from the out­set we wanted to give their more diminu­tive rel­a­tives a fair share of the lime­light. Jaguarundi, bay cat, rusty-spot­ted cat, guina, black-footed cat... these are crea­tures few peo­ple have even heard of. Their com­bined weight is less than that of a sin­gle adult tiger, and much about their lives re­mains mys­te­ri­ous. Sev­eral have never been seen on tele­vi­sion be­fore.

Images of fluffy, Bag­puss-like cats with en­dear­ing, al­most hu­man fa­cial ex­pres­sions have popped up on­line in re­cent years. Nearly all were taken in zoos. These are Pal­las’s cats, and de­spite their re­cent fame, vir­tu­ally noth­ing is known about their move­ments and so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion. Of­ten called the “small ghost of the moun­tain”, the species’ range partly over­laps with the equally elu­sive snow leop­ard but its strong­hold is the high steppes of Mon­go­lia and neigh­bour­ing Chinese prov­inces at up to 4,000m.

SET­TING UP CAMP

This in­hos­pitable, sparsely pop­u­lated grass­land re­gion is three times big­ger than the UK, and it’s where Bar­iushaa Munkht­sog of the Mon­go­lian Academy of Sciences has been study­ing Pal­las’s cats for the past 17 years. It took our small film crew, in­clud­ing top cam­er­a­woman Sue Gib­son, three days trav­el­ling to reach Dr Munkht­sog’s study site, a re­mote val­ley six hours south of the cap­i­tal city of Ulaanbaatar.

Tucked away at the base of a hill was our camp, com­pris­ing four gers (known as yurts in Rus­sia) hired from a no­madic Mon­go­lian fam­ily. As they added the fi­nal layer of fleece to the ger walls, our Mon­go­lian team in­tro­duced us to the ins and outs of these in­ge­nious struc­tures – when it was cool we could light a fire; when hot, we could lift up the heavy sides. Out on the steppe the weather can switch from one ex­treme to an­other and our guide Gaana warned

us “you should be pre­pared for any­thing”.

In his early 30s, Gaana is a stout, strong man with a cheeky sense of hu­mour. It didn’t take long be­fore he was try­ing to wres­tle with me – “train­ing for Nadam” he said, re­fer­ring to the up­com­ing fes­tiv­i­ties in which wrestling would be the cen­tre­piece. “You know it’s never easy find­ing a manul,” he ad­mit­ted, us­ing the Mon­go­lian name for our tar­get. Its English name hon ours Peter Si­mon Pal las, the nat­u­ral­ist ex­plorer who first de­scribed the species for sci­ence in 1776.

“Since I was a young boy, I’ve prac­tised watch­ing for move­ment far, far in the dis­tance,” Gaana went on. He con­fi­dently claimed that he could now spot a Pal­las’s cat

5km away. We were clearly in the best pos­si­ble com­pany.

Not only has Gaana spent more time watch­ing wild Pal­las’s cats than al­most any­one else, but he con­fesses that he’s still “al­ways ex­cited” to see one. “I love the manul, es­pe­cially the kit­tens.”

Gaana and Dr Munkht­sog’s team of re­searchers had al­ready been search­ing the area for sev­eral weeks, and we wasted no time in head­ing out to check footage from their cam­era-traps. We piled into a Pur­gon, a Soviet-era off-road ve­hi­cle that our driver cheer­fully de­scribed as “in­de­struc­tible” – and bumped off across the steppe ac­com­pa­nied by Gaana’s ren­di­tion of a tra­di­tional song.

Even with cam­era-traps, lo­cat­ing wellc am­ou­flaged cats just 50–60cm long in a seem­ingly end­less dry, stony grass­land is a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge. But even­tu­ally, high up on a hill, a cam­era po­si­tioned on a rocky outcrop re­vealed what we had hoped – kit­tens. And there were four of them.

No move­ment had been de­tected for the past 24 hours, so Gaana knew that the cats had prob­a­bly moved on. “Pal­las’s cats fre­quently change their den site,” he ex­plained, a strat­egy to avoid de­tec­tion by preda­tors such as ea­gles and wolves.

A pair of golden ea­gles were nest­ing close by the aban­doned den, which pretty much con­firmed Gaana’s sus­pi­cions. The cats could have headed in any di­rec­tion, but since the kit­tens were only a cou­ple of months old they wouldn’t be able to walk far.

The tried-and-tested tech­nique to find Pal­las’s cats is to climb a hill and sit still for hours on end, scan­ning the land­scape with binoc­u­lars for the slight­est move­ment. It is like look­ing for a boul­der in a field of boul­ders. There’s lots of ac­tiv­ity among the grass, but more of­ten than not it turns out to be a ro­dent. The steppe is rich with prey, in­clud­ing mar­mots, pikas, ground squir­rels, voles, ger­bils and ham­sters – some of the dens­est pop­u­la­tions of small mam­mals on the planet. Ground-liv­ing birds, mainly sand­grouse, par­tridges and larks, are also on the menu.

As I scanned for cat-like shapes, voles fre­quently popped out in front of me. If I kept

WHEN­EVER I THOUGHT I’D SPOT­TED A CAT, GAANA RA­DIOED BACK TO SAY: “SORRY, IT’S A MARMOT!”

still, they jumped on me. One even nib­bled at my coat. It took a few days be­fore my eyes were ac­cus­tomed to the sub­tle nu­ances of this en­vi­ron­ment. Even then, when­ever I thought I had spot­ted a cat, Gaana ra­dioed back to say: “Sorry, it’s an­other marmot!”

PAW PA­TROL

Ev­ery day we headed out be­fore sun­rise, climb­ing dozens of hills in ea­ger an­tic­i­pa­tion. At last, when our driver Lkhagva was clean­ing his Pur­gon, he glanced up to see a cat’s an­gu­lar head peer­ing at him over the top of a boul­der. Lkhagva told us that as the cat slinked away, it seemed to be head­ing to­wards a dis­tinc­tive pile of rocks.

At first light the next day, Gaana and I mon­i­tored the area from a dis­tant hill­side while Sue and the rest of the team con­tin­ued search­ing else­where. Gaana saw the cat first, us­ing his lit­tle pair of an­tique Rus­sian binoc­u­lars. We watched, re­lieved, as the mother left her den. Through our tele­scope, I ob­served her creep up to a big boul­der and slowly raise her head to peep over it. She was on the hunt.

Hav­ing spot­ted her quarry, the cat ever-so grad­u­ally low­ered her head back be­hind the rock. This be­hav­iour has been coined ‘periscop­ing’, just one in a cat­a­logue of covert ma­noeu­vres that helps the Pal­las’s cat hide from prey and preda­tors alike. With her body flat­tened so that she ap­peared an­gu­lar in pro­file, the cat now be­gan creep­ing for­wards, her un­der­side pressed to the ground. Since the species’ ears are po­si­tioned very low on the sides of the head, she al­most dis­ap­peared amid the short grass.

Closer and closer crept the fe­male to her prey, some­times freez­ing for min­utes be­tween each lit­tle move­ment. Fi­nally, with a sud­den burst of speed, she sprang into the open to seize the ro­dent. This time, how­ever, she ap­peared to miss.

Ea­gle-eyed Gaana could some­how make out the tiny shapes of kit­tens jump­ing around back at the den. So sev­eral of the team, who had caught up with us, kept an eye on the mother while Gaana and I belly-crawled to­wards them in a clumsy ap­prox­i­ma­tion of the mother’s hunt­ing tech­nique. Af­ter we reached the cover of a large boul­der, 75m down­wind from the den, Gaana nudged me ex­cit­edly: four tiny faces were look­ing in our di­rec­tion through cracks in the rocks.

The kit­tens’ move­ments were jerky and in stac­cato, as if they were check­ing to see if the coast was clear. But they soon re­laxed and started pounc­ing on each other, clum­sily run­ning around the rocks. They even chased voles that were brave enough to make an ap­pear­ance. The nat­u­ral­ist in me was ex­cited by this priv­i­leged view, but as a film-maker I was also itch­ing for Sue to be cap­tur­ing de­cent footage.

HELLO KITTY

When to move closer to film an an­i­mal is al­ways a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to make, but we trusted Gaana’s ex­pe­ri­ence. As we watched, the kit­tens would oc­ca­sion­ally freeze, and each time we’d no­tice a golden ea­gle pass over­head, or a cor­sac fox (like a pale, chunky red fox) trot by in the dis­tance. Clearly the young­sters were alert to po­ten­tial threats, yet they didn’t seem to have no­ticed us.

Af­ter a few hours, the lit­ter sud­denly all looked up and leaped off their rocks. I was wor­ried that we had been spot­ted, but the ex­cite­ment was aimed at their mother, who was com­ing up the hill car­ry­ing a large ground

squir­rel. She walked within 20m of where we were hid­ing, then led her kit­tens into the den. It was around mid­day and Gaana said that the cats would spend the next few hours asleep. He set up a cam­era-trap, and we left in the hope that the cats would see our con­struc­tion as just an­other part of the nat­u­ral land­scape.

Ly­ing prone, we could keep out of sight, but with a big cam­era and tri­pod Sue was much more vis­i­ble. A usual film­ing hide would flap too much in the in­ces­sant wind, so with the fam­ily in their den we made good use of the rocks and built a makeshift stone hide. We left in the hope that the cats would see our con­struc­tion as just an­other part of the nat­u­ral land­scape.

The fol­low­ing day Sue took po­si­tion in­side her stone den, cov­ered in cam­ou­flage net­ting with only a small open­ing to point the cam­era through. It wasn’t long be­fore she was film­ing the play­ful kit­tens – just as we had seen them the day be­fore.

We planned to re­turn on sub­se­quent days to film the kit­tens as they grew up and be­came more con­fi­dent, but the un­pre­dictable steppe en­vi­ron­ment was to change our new-found for­tune. A se­vere weather front moved in, forc­ing us to stop film­ing and re­treat to camp. So strong was the wind that it threat­ened to

strip the walls from our gers. Light­ning struck around us. Our din­ing tent was oblit­er­ated; our toi­let tent was blown to the other side of the val­ley.

How would our Pal­las’s cat fam­ily fare? It was soon clear that they had moved on, and Gaana sug­gested that the den may have been too ex­posed. The search was on again. Over the next few weeks, Gaana and the re­search team helped us to re­find and fol­low the fam­ily as the kit­tens be­came more ac­tive. In time we man­aged to film the mother hunt and the kit­tens hone their own preda­tory skills through play.

Pal­las’s cat may al­ways have been un­com­mon and thinly spread, but hunt­ing for its thick fur and for use in tra­di­tional

Asian medicine re­mains a se­ri­ous threat and pop­u­la­tions are in de­cline. Our hope is that our new se­quences – the first wild footage to re­veal a de­tailed in­sight into the species’ life – will con­trib­ute to the con­ser­va­tion of this elu­sive and very un­usual small cat.

RIGHT: Cam­era-wo­man Sue Gib­son (left fore­ground) and the rest of the team search for a ‘fluffy grey boul­der’ in a field of boul­ders.

TOP: Mon­go­lian horses graze un­der a dra­matic sky, a view that could be seen from camp

ABOVE: a steely gaze from a fe­male with one of her two-month-old kit­tens

RIGHT: the young are full of en­ergy but will sud­denly freeze when an ea­gle passes over­head

BELOW: a re­mote­con­trolled film­ing ve­hi­cle was built to get close-up shots of the cats; the crew trav­elled in a Soviet-era off-road ve­hi­cle called a Pur­gon; Paul and the team stayed in gers, which were hired from a Mon­go­lian fam­ily.

ABOVE: the lit­tle faces of three Pal­las’s cat kit­tens peer out from their rocky den

BELOW: grif­fon vul­tures are com­mon on the Mon­go­lian steppe

BELOW: a Pal­las’s cat and kit­ten oc­cupy an aban­doned marmot bur­row, which is used for refuge and rear­ing young

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