CatSG

Chinese moutain cat

Felis bieti

IUCN Red List: Vulnerable

Weight: 5.5-9 kg
Body length: 60-85 cm
Tail length: 29-35 cm
Longevity: unknown
Litter size: 2-4 cubs

Description

The Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti), traditionally called Chinese desert cat, is one of the least known cat species.

Although no taxonomic study on the species has been conducted, based on morphological characteristics and its restricted distribution, the Chinese mountain cat is considered a separate species of the wildcat (Felis silvestris) and recognised as a monotypic species. 

The Chinese mountain cat has a stocky build and relatively short legs. In the Tibetan highlands it is called “grass cat” by the local people since its fur matches so closely the colour of dry grass. The fur of the Chinese mountain cat is greyish in winter and dark brown in summer. Its sides, legs and cheeks are marked with faint brown horizontal lines. The lower lips, chin and belly are white and the throat appears pale yellowish brown. The ears are tipped with tufts of dark brown fur and the back of the ear is pale yellowish brown. The tail of the Chinese mountain cat is fairly bushy making up about 40% of the cat’s total body length The last part of its tail is encircled by three to six dark rings with a black tip. 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Chinese

o mao, huang mo mao, cao shihli

English

Chinese Desert Cat, Chinese Mountain Cat, Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat, Chinese Steppe Cat, Grass Cat 

French

chat de Biet

German

Graukatze

Kazakh

shel misigi

Spanish

gato de Biet, gato del deserto de China

Uygur

qel müshüki

Status and Distribution

The Chinese mountain cat is the least numerous of the wildcats and classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. It is endemic to China and has a restricted distribution only occurring in the north-eastern and eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. It is thought to occur in the province Quighai, where it is most frequently encountered, in Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. Historically, the Chinese mountain cat was also recorded in Ningxia, Sichuan and Tibet.  

Very little information is available about its abundance, and its population trends and status remain unknown. Generally, the Chinese mountain cat is considered to be rare and its effective population size may be fewer than 10,000 mature breeding females. It is thought that it is declining across its range and may largely exist as a single interconnected subpopulation. 

Distribution area of the Chinese mountain cat.

Habitat

The Chinese mountain cat occurs at high altitudes and in areas with harsh climatic seasonal extremes. The climate can be dry, windy and very hot to very cold. The Chinese mountain cat inhabits steppe grasslands at high elevations, alpine meadows and alpine shrubland. Sometimes it is also found in hilly loess steppe and edges of coniferous forests. It has never been recorded in deserts or dense forests. The Chinese mountain cat occurs primarily in alpine meadow habitats at elevations of 2,500 to 5,000 m. 

Ecology and Behaviour

There is little information available about the Chinese mountain cat’s ecology, spatial arrangements, habitat requirements and behaviour. The Chinese mountain cat seems to be solitary and mostly active at night or crepuscule. During the day it rests in burrows where it also gives birth. Most of such burrows used by Chinese mountain cats have been found on south facing slopes and some at elevations of 3,600 m.

The mating season is thought to take place in January-March and most litters are born in May. At 7-8 months cubs become independent. Male and female Chinese mountain cats are solitary except during the breeding season. The Chinese mountain cat hunts mole rats by listening for their movements through their subterranean tunnels (3-5 cm below the surface), and then digging them out. 

Prey

Rodents are the major prey of the Chinese mountain cat. They take mainly mole rats, white-tailed pine vole, and pikas. Lagomorphs and birds such as pheasants and partridges are also taken. The Chinese mountain cat most probably also scavenges.

Main Threats

Fur of a Chinese mountain cat.

Large scale poisoning campaigns have been conducted since 1958 in China in an attempt to control “pest” populations of voles, moles and pikas which are viewed as grazing competitors of domestic livestock. Studies have shown, however, that the problem of pest outbreaks results from overgrazing and that an important way to combat this problem would be to avoid overgrazing as well as to have a healthy population of predators. Nonetheless, today, control programmes using poisonous chemicals continue throughout much of the Chinese mountain cat’s range and have eradicated pikas from large areas. Such prey base depletion is one of the main threats to the Chinese mountain cat. Applied chemicals can also lead to secondary poisoning in the predators such as the Chinese mountain cat. Another major threat is the hunting of its fur, which is mostly used locally for making traditional hats and clothing. The large scale open trade is closed but it still occurs at unknown and unregulated level so that Chinese mountain cats furs are still found in the illegal wildlife trade.

In contrast to the other wildcat species, where hybridisation with domestic cat is one of the major threats, the Chinese mountain cat did not show any evidence of genetic introgression of domestic cat genes. However the sample size of the conducted study was small and therefore the impact of hybridisation is not clearly known. Domestic cats can also transmit diseases to the Chinese mountain cat and they compete for the same prey. Snares and traps set for other predators also threaten the Chinese mountain cat. 

Conservation Effort and Protection Status

The Chinese mountain cat is included in Appendix II of CITES. It is fully protected in China. In 1992, the Chinese mountain cat was recommended to be upgraded to Appendix I of CITES by the Cat Specialist Group, which would require permission of national, rather than provincial authorities to hunt or trade it. This recommendation has not yet been implemented.

Research on the status and distribution of the Chinese mountain cat is urgently needed as well as further studies about its ecology and demography to be able to identify major threats and take efficient conservation measures. Moreover, the effectiveness of protected area management to protect the species should be assessed.