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
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!”
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.
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