Though Mongolia is considered a stronghold of the Pallas’s cat (also called manul), its occurrence in Mongolia’s largest nature reserve, the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, has been uncertain. Although some sources mentioned its presence, this area of more than 10,000 square miles was not included in IUCN’s most recent assessment of the species. This elusive, understudied cat is very shy, making it especially difficult to study.
Despite its rising star across social media – loved for its thick fur and perpetually grumpy mug – we still know very little about the abundance, distribution, or population trends of the Pallas’s cat. Information on its population is sketchy, making it difficult to implement impactful conservation efforts or assess the effects of potential threats to the species. To address this disparity and focus conservation efforts on this small cousin of the snow leopard, the Snow Leopard Trust formed the Pallas’s Cat International Conservation Alliance a few years ago together with the Nordens Ark Zoo and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
A newly published study by our team, led by Mongolian researcher Otgontamir Chimed, employed interview-based surveys of herders and other long-term inhabitants of Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park to better understand the Pallas’s cat’s occurrence. Her research took place across the southeastern portion of the national park. She interviewed 130 local people, of whom 86% were herders. Participants were asked to recollect sightings of the Pallas’s cat in years prior to the Park’s formation (1993) and in more recent years to help gauge the occurrence and historical population trends for the species. The data were analyzed using occupancy-based statistical models.
The research confirmed the cat’s presence in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. The interviews suggested that compared to the period before 1993, the present distributional range of the Pallas’s cat in the park may have shrunk by 15%. Our researchers found that the observations of the Pallas’s cat occurred primarily in areas with rugged terrain, shedding some light on why the Pallas’s cat was able to avoid detection by researchers for so long.
Although not without shortcomings, this type of interview-based data collection employing local knowledge is very important for conservation efforts, and can be especially useful when there is a dearth of previous or historical data for a species. Local knowledge also has the benefit of being a relatively reliable and efficient source of information, and can be especially invaluable when complemented with camera traps and other research techniques.
At this stage, it’s difficult to say why the Pallas’s cats distributional range might be on the decline. The area has witnessed increasing grazing by livestock and also rodent poisoning in the past, which could have played a role.
Otgontamir’s results are an important milestone for understanding the current and historical distribution of the Pallas’s cat in southern Mongolia, and will inform the conservation efforts employed in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park.
We thank the Pallas’s Cat International Conservation Alliance (PICA) for financial support and associated partners from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Nordens Ark (Sweden), the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park staff for logistical support, and the 130 respondents for participating in the surveys.