The Pallas\’s cat, also known as the manul, is a species well-suited to cold environments, similar in size to a domestic cat. It resides in the elevated regions of the Himalayas and goes by various local names like ribilik, tak shan, and sukthang in Ladakh. This species earned its name, Pallas\’s cat, from Peter Simon Pallas, who first documented it in 1776 based on specimens he collected near Lake Baikal in Russia.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, Pallas\’s cats are primarily distributed across Central Asia, with their range extending into western Iran, Mongolia, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. In these areas, these cats inhabit mountainous plains and semi-desert foothills. The Pallas\’s cat is listed under Appendix II of CITES and enjoys legal protection in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
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Characteristics Of The Pallas\’s Cat
Scientists have observed several unique characteristics that define the Pallas\’s cat. These include:
- a robust physique
- short legs
- dense fur
- flat ears and
- a distinct black spot on its head.
Unlike most small cats, Pallas\’s cats have round pupils. They make their homes in vacant marmot burrows and rocky crevices within steppe and grassland ecosystems, where they give birth to their cubs. Their peak activity times are during the morning and evening hours. Despite their small size, their territory can span up to 100 kilometers. They are capable of giving birth to as many as eight cubs at a time and can survive in the wild for up to six years. Pallas\’s cats communicate through yelping, growling, and purring.
Sightings Of The Pallas\’s Cat Are Increasing In Frequency In Ladakh
The presence of Pallas\’s cats in Ladakh has been documented in Indian literature since the early 1970s. Presently, the species is confirmed to inhabit the Trans-Himalayan regions of Ladakh and Sikkim, although sightings are infrequent. In Ladakh, sightings have been reported in areas like Hanle, Staklung, and Lal Pahari within the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary. In Sikkim, sightings have occurred at elevations ranging from 3,000 to 4,800 meters, with one sighting at Tso Lhamo Plateau reaching an altitude of 5,073 meters, marking the highest recorded altitude for a Pallas\’s cat. Tourists and nature photographers continue to share photographs of the species on social media. Although there was a report in 1998 regarding the species in Himachal Pradesh\’s Spiti area, it has not received official confirmation.
Pankaj Raina, Ladakh Wildlife Conservator, stated, \”Previously, it was believed that these cats were mainly found around the wetlands of Changthang, but recent experiences indicate that they are found in many parts of Ladakh.\”
Regarding recent camera trap photos, Raina added, \”During our surveys, we discovered their presence in many locations within Hemis National Park. Additionally, there have been sightings of Pallas\’s cats in Kargil and Nubra, between Changthang.\”
Based on these findings, Raina believes that more Pallas\’s cats are inhabiting Ladakh than previously estimated. He noted, \”The locations where we found them in the Hemis region are situated at elevations of 3,000-4,000 meters above sea level, indicating that the Pallas\’s cat is not exclusively tied to wetlands. They can also coexist in areas with pikas, voles, and marmots.\”
More Tourists Visit The Area To See The Pallas\’s Cats
Khenrab Phuntsog, a 45-year-old wildlife guard with the Ladakh forest department, recognized that Pallas\’s cats have become more frequently sighted lately, with one of the contributing factors being the rise in ecotourism, leading to more people and consequently more reports of sightings. He stated, \”One possible explanation for this could be the increasing interest in ecotourism, resulting in a higher number of people visiting the areas where Pallas\’s cats inhabit.\”
Raina agreed with Phuntsog and identified additional factors that contribute to the increased sightings. He mentioned, \”In Hanle last year, we observed two mothers, each with three cubs. Although we couldn\’t find one of the mothers, the other was frequently spotted in the area with her offspring. The influx of visitors, which means more people searching for the cats, could be driving the increased number of sightings.\”
Raina also highlighted the role of prey availability as another contributing factor. He elaborated, \”When there is a greater abundance of prey species for these cats, it becomes easier for them to find food and raise their young. In one year, we observed a Pallas\’s cat giving birth to triplets twice in Hanle. However, further research is needed to fully comprehend this phenomenon.\” Experts are uncertain about the extent of the influence of prey availability, as the overall prey population is limited, but it may have increased in certain regions.
Lobzang Visuddha, the president of the citizens\’ organization Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh, assists tourists in spotting wildlife in remote areas of Ladakh. He noted that Hanle and Changthang are well-known locations for observing Pallas\’s cats. Vishuddha explained, \”In the wetland areas of the Hanley Basin, Pallas\’s cats find an abundance of prey, which promotes rapid breeding when food is readily available.\”
The growing number of sightings tells a story of the region\’s unique wildlife and the importance of conservation efforts. Have you ever had the chance to spot this remarkable feline in the wild, or do you have any questions or insights to share? We\’d love to hear your thoughts! Please leave a comment below and let\’s keep the conversation going.
Photos by: Forest, Ecology & Environment Department