CatSG

Pallas's cat

Otocolobus manul

IUCN Red List: Near Threatened

Weight: 3-5 kg
Body length: 46-65 cm
Tail length: 21-31 cm
Longevity: 8-10 years
Litter size: 2-6 cubs

Description

Two subspecies of the Pallas's cat (Otocolobus manul) are tentatively recognised:

  • Otocolobus manul manul distributed across China (Gansu), Mongolia, Central Asia, Kazakhstan, South Siberia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan and
  • Otocolobus manul nigripectus inhabiting Tibet, Kashmir, Nepal and Bhutan.

However, further research is required as the species possibly is monotypic.

The Pallas’s cat is a very distinctive looking felid with short legs, stocky compact build, and long fur which makes it look larger than it is. The hair on its underparts is nearly twice as long as on the top and sides, an adaptation that keeps Pallas’s cat warm in the extreme cold winter conditions that are typical of its habitat. The coat colour of Pallas’s cat varies from grey in the north of its range to tawny or fox-red in some parts in the south of its range. The colour can also vary according to the seasonal moult. The hair tips are white producing a silvery, frosted appearance. The chin, throat and belly are white. Its legs are marked with indistinct black bands. Its tail is thick, and short (about half of the body length) with a black coloured tip and marked with several narrow black rings. The coat colour and markings provide excellent camouflage and help the Pallas’s cat to blend into its surroundings. The face of Pallas’s cat is broad and flattened and its ears are small, rounded and set low on the head. The forehead is patterned with small black spots and the cheeks with dark and white stripes. The low profile of its head is an adaptation to hunting in open country where there is little cover. Its eyes are bordered with white and black lines and feature a unique third eyelid which functions as protection against the cold winds and the dust storms that are common across its range. 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Afghanistan (Dan)

psk kuhey

Bashkir

yalami

Bukharian

malem

Chinese

tu sun, wulun, manao, yang shihli

English

manul

French

Chat manul

German

Manul

India (Ladakh)

ribilik

Kazakhstan

malin, sabanchi

Kyrgyzstan

madail

Mongolia

malin

Russia

manul

Smirech'e

sabanchi

Soyot

Mana

Spanish

gato manul, gato de Pallas

Uygur

molun

Uzbek

malin, dala mushugi

Status and Distribution

TThe Pallas’s cat is classified as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List and also in Mongolia’s National Red List. Little is known about the status of the Pallas’s cat in other countries. Populations of Pallas’s cats may vary directly with their prey base and appear to be most numerous where pikas and voles are abundant. Generally, Pallas’s cat is considered to be widespread and but is not common across its range and has a fragmented distribution. The largest populations of Pallas’s cats are believed to exist in Mongolia. They appear to be an intrinsically rare species: for instance in optimal steppe grassland of Central Mongolia, the population density was estimated to be around 7.5 individuals per 100 km². The low densities of Pallas’s cat are thought to be due to interspecific predation and signifies that large areas are needed to conserve viable populations

In Russia, the Pallas’s cat occurs along the border with Mongolia and China. In the Tuva and Chita regions of Russia, the populations were estimated at 2,000-2,200 and 2,100-3,000 animals respectively. The populations in the Altai and Buryatia republics, Russia, were estimated to be lower at around 450-550 and 250-350 individuals. In the southwest of its range (Afghanistan, Pakistan), Pallas’s cat populations are thought to be diminishing. In India (Ladakh) and Iran, the Pallas’s cat is considered uncommon and rare. In Iran it has been recorded in the mountains in the north of the country and in arid areas of the south and central regions. From much of its former range around the Caspian Sea it has disappeared and populations from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are thought to be small and threatened and its status is uncertain. The Pallas’s cat has been recorded in eastern Kyrgyzstan. Pallas’s cat may have been extirpated in the easternmost parts of its range in China, and in the western part of its range its habitat is highly fragmented. However, recent surveys focusing on Pallas’s cat and using camera trap techniques have extended the species known range into Bhutan and Nepal (but at very low densities).

The Pallas’s cat is found from Iran throughout Central Asia. It primarily inhabits the steppe grassland regions of Mongolia, China and the Tibetan Plateau.  

Distribution area of the Pallas's cat (red = extant, orange = possibly extant, grey = presence uncertain, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015).

Habitat

Camera trap picture of Pallas's cat in Jigme Dorji National Park, Bhutan.
Pallas's cat hiding in the rocks, Hustai Nurru buffer zone, Mongolia.
Typical Pallas's cat's habitat.

The typical habitat of Pallas’s cat is marked by extreme continental climate with little rainfall, low humidity and with a wide range of temperatures. Despite being well adapted to such cold and arid climates, persistent snow cover over 15 cm seems to limit its distribution. Pallas’s cat inhabits montane grassland, shrub and grass steppe, hilly areas, stony alpine deserts and semi-deserts. It is mainly associated with rolling steppe and south facing slopes where deep snow cover does not accumulate. A patchwork of exposed rock outcrops and expanses of talus are characteristic of its habitat. Within the primarily open landscapes Pallas’s cat inhabits, it has a strong preference for complex habitats typified by rock cover, hill-slopes and ravines. It is rarely found in open grasslands without cover where protection from predators is highly diminished. Pallas’s cat has been recorded up to 5,000 m elevation. It is generally absent from lowland sandy desert basins, although it may penetrate these areas along river courses.

Ecology and Behaviour

Pallas’s cat is a solitary animal that is primarily crepuscular but can be active at any time of the day or night. For shelter it uses caves, rock crevices or abandoned burrows of other animals such as of marmots, foxes and badgers. Such shelter is thought to be a critical habitat feature for Pallas’s cats as they are often predated by sympatric predators. Such shelters are also essential as birthing dens and for raising young. When Pallas’s cat feels threatened and no shelter is available, rather than run, it remains perfectly still relying on its camouflage for protection. The home ranges of the Pallas’s cat can be very large considering its small body size, with home ranges of over 100 km2 for males in some regions. In Russia, home ranges of three radio-tracked Pallas’s cats varied between 5-30 km². In a study in Mongolia, home ranges of males were 4-5 times larger than female home ranges. Male home ranges measured from 20.9-207 km² and female from 7.4-125.5 km². Home ranges of males generally overlap with those of several females and can also overlap with other male ranges.

Reproduction in Pallas's cats is highly seasonal and photoperiod-dependent. Females show elevated faecal estrogen concentrations for 3-4 months of the year during late winter/early spring. Males have a similar seasonal peak that precedes that of females, presumably to ensure maximal sperm production during the breeding season. Oestrus lasts for up to 5 days, during which time females are followed by males, probably guarding the reproductively active female from other potential mates. Most births occur between April and May, with a gestation time of 66-75 days and litters ranging in size from 2-6 kittens. Females reach sexual maturity within a year, and can breed in their first season after dispersal.  

Pallas's cat kittens hiding in the rocks.
Pallas's cat showing its typical behaviour when threatened. It remains perfectly still relying on its camouflage for protection.

Prey

Small mammals make up the majority of Pallas’s cats diet. It feeds mainly on pikas (Ochotona spp.) and small rodents such as gerbils (Meriones spp.), voles, hamsters and jerboas (Dipus sagitta, Allactaga spp.). Occasionally Pallas’s cat hunts susliks, birds, insects such as grasshoppers, hares (Lepus), young marmots (Marmota), and reptiles. It will also feed on carrion and there has been one record of Pallas’s cat feeding on Argali sheep lambs (Ovis ammon). Its prey typically weighs 50-300 g.

Pallas’s cats have been observed to use three hunting techniques: 'Stalking’ involving creeping slowly and low to the ground, using vegetation or rocks as cover until close enough to pounce on their prey; a ‘moving and flushing’ technique where Pallas’s cat quickly walks through long grass undergrowth flushing and capturing unwary small mammals and birds; and an ‘ambush’ technique, where cats wait outside a burrow for prey to emerge before attacking. 

Main Threats

The Pallas’s cat has long been hunted for its fur in large numbers in Mongolia, China and Russia. In Mongolia, hunting of the Pallas’s cat is still permitted for “household purposes” despite its threatened status. The fur is used locally but there is also illegal export to Russia and China. As regulations are not enforced and the permitting system is ineffective, the Pallas’s cat is vulnerable to overexploitation. There is also a demand for Pallas’s cats as exotic pets and it is used in traditional medicines in Mongolia and Russia. Pallas’s cats are incidentally caught in leghold traps or snares set for other species and accidentally shot because they can be mistaken for marmots, which are commonly hunted.

The depletion of marmots through overexploitation may also be an issue for Pallas’s cat. Marmot burrows are used by Pallas’s cat on a daily basis to provide shelter, and are critical habitat for birthing and raising young. Pallas’s cats are unable to dig burrows and are highly dependent on those provided by marmots. Pallas’s cats are also often killed by domestic dogs, raptors and other carnivores; burrows and other shelters are an important resource for avoiding predation.

Prey depletion may also be a threat. In some range states such as China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation, pikas and other rodent species are poisoned. This is due to them being considered to be a vector for diseases such as bubonic plague (pika and marmot), or considered competitors of domestic livestock for grazing resources. In other areas, pikas are hunted for food and skins and threatened by over-exploitation.

Pallas’s cat’s requirement for large areas and their diet and habitat specialization makes them more vulnerable to habitat fragmentation and degradation, one of the major threats to this species. The habitat of the Pallas’s cat has been widely degraded due to overgrazing by domestic livestock and agriculture. Habitat fragmentation due to mining and infrastructure developments, expanding livestock husbandry, increasing human population size and livestock numbers is rising, aggravating the situation of the Pallas’s cat in Russia, Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia.

Due to its secretive nature and low densities, the Pallas’s cat is difficult to survey and little is known about it. Therefore, declines in local populations are difficult to detect and may remain unrecorded.

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The Pallas’s cat is included in Appendix II of CITES and hunting is prohibited in Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. However, in several areas, protection only exists on paper but is not enforced. In Mongolia, hunting is allowed the whole year round. Hunting licenses can be purchased to export trophies. There is a lack of information about the national legislations from Georgia and Tajikistan. In Afghanistan, the Pallas’s cat is legally protected since 2009 and hunting and trade is prohibited within the country. Further measures are needed to improve law enforcement in order to limit illegal hunting and trading of Pallas’s cats. Training for wildlife rangers could help to reduce poaching.

There have been very few studies conducted about the Pallas’s cat. Recent and ongoing studies from Mongolia and Russia have increased information. This includes insight in its ecology and current threats from numerous radio-collared Pallas’s cats in Mongolia. Research has also highlighted the importance of improving protection within and outside of reserve areas. Despite 12% of the Pallas’s cat’s distribution in Mongolia lying within protected areas, illegal hunting is still frequent in these areas and Pallas’s cat's large home range size may result in the species being difficult to protect within reserves. Protection of Pallas’s cats within reserves in Russia has increased and approximately 13% of the species’ range in Russia lies now within protected areas. The establishment of monitoring programs, distribution surveys and further research is urgently needed to better understand its ecology, spatial requirements, occupancy, habitat and resource needs and to be able to assess the species' status more accurately. This will help to improve the management and conservation of the Pallas’s cat.