Camera traps confirm presence of Pallas Cat

Snow leopard survey cameras confirm the presence of Pallas Cats in an area where there had been no previous photographic evidence of their existence in the area.

Stout and pushy: It uses low vegetation and rocky terrain for cover

By Passang Norbu

Trap camera image

Wangchuck Centennial Park: Camera traps, set up to survey the snow leopard population in Wangchuck centennial park in Bumthang, has captured and confirmed the presence of another cat in the country, the Pallas cat.

“Several pictures show the Pallas cat at a place called Boera in January and April, and at Marganphu area in February and April this year,” World Wildlife Fund (WWF) officials said.

Marganphu is a three-day walk from the nearest road point at Nasiphel in Choekhor gewog, Bumthang; and Boera is a four-day walk. Both places have no human settlement, and the only visitors are yak-herders and cordycep collectors.

With an uncanny resemblance to the comic strip character, Garfield, the Pallas cat is about the size of a domestic cat, 18-26inches long, and weighs between 3-5kg.

The combination of its stocky posture and long, dense fur makes it appear stout and plushy. Its fur is ochre, with dark vertical bars on the torso and forelegs, and its winter coat is greyer and less patterned than the summer one. The legs are proportionately shorter than those of other cats, and ears are set very low and wide apart. With unusually short claws, its face is shortened, compared with other cats, giving it a flattened look.

Pallas cats are not fast runners, and hunt primarily by ambush or stalking, using low vegetation and rocky terrain for cover. They feed largely on diurnally active prey species, such as gerbils, pikas and partridges, and sometimes catch young marmots.

The habitat of the cat, WWF officials said, is characterised by rolling hills, dominated by glacial outwash and alpine steppe vegetation. Pallas cats were spotted on same locations, where other predators, such as snow leopard, Tibetan wolf and red fox, are found.

Wildlife conservation officials say that the Pallas cat is negatively impacted by habitat degradation, prey base decline and hunting, and has therefore been classified as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature since 2002. Hunters, lured by its fur, fat and organs for medicinal value, threaten its survival.

WWF conservation director Vijay Moktan told Kuensel that, although foresters mentioned the presence of Pallas cat in the past, with possibilities of finding the cat at an altitudinal range of 2,800m to 4,000m, until now there had been no pictorial evidence as such. “Before we carry out anything, we first need to discuss it with the government,” he said.

The WWF head office in United States was informed about the finding. The finding could probably be the first report on the occurrence of Pallas cat in the eastern Himalayas, according to WWF-US conservation scientist, Rinjan Shrestha, who has been closely working on the snow leopard survey.

A joint project between WWF and department of forests and park services (DoFPS), camera traps were placed at the end of November last year for the snow leopard survey.

SLN member’s conservation plan reported in National Geographic

SLN member Shafqat Hussain proposes creating protected areas for Snow Leopards in Pakistan.

Source: National Geographic News
By Christine Dell’Amore

Snow Leopards Need to be Protected… But How?

One conservationist has a radial new plan – treating the rare cat as a “domesticated” animal.

The snow leopard in Pakistan is an endangered species. The population of the rarely seen big cat has likely fallen to fewer than 450 in the country, mainly due to hunting. Now an expert has come up with an unconventional—and controversial—proposal to save the snow leopard: Classify it as a domesticated animal.

That doesn’t mean that snow leopards are literally tame, like a chicken, explained Shafqat Hussain, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who spoke during the National Geographic Explorers Symposium in Washington, D.C., in June: “When I say that snow leopards are like domestic cats, I mean it rhetorically to make contrast with the word wild.” (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

His idea stems from the changing relationship between snow leopards and humans. Where the cats do remain in the Himalaya, they increasingly share their habitat with mountain herders. A 2010 study of snow leopard scat found that up to 70 percent of the species’ diet in the Gilgit Baltistan Province (map) comes from sheep, cattle, and other domestic animals. Some herders have killed snow leopards in retaliation for preying on their livestock. (See pictures and video of snow leopards in Afghanistan.)

Given the snow leopards’ diet, “how do we see these mythical, elusive wild animals? Are they really wild in the sense that of meaning we attach to the word wild—existing on its own, having no connection with society and domestic economy?” Hussain said.

“Clearly not.”

Supporting Locals

So the way to enable snow leopards to survive, says Hussain, is not to create protected areas that sequester them from local communities. That solution often alienates farmers, who lose their grazing areas as a result. He would suggest supporting local herders instead so they can make a living despite snow leopard incursions. (See snow leopard pictures in National Geographic magazine.)

And that’s exactly what he’s been doing for more than a decade. In 1999 Hussain founded the Snow Leopard Project, an insurance scheme that compensates local people in snow leopard-range countries if their livestock are killed by the predators.

Various branches of the successful project, which is jointly managed by project officials and a committee of villagers, have spread to 400 households covering 3,000 animals across central Asia.

Since 1998, close to U.S. $7,000 has been paid out in compensation for lost animals, and $13,000 invested on improving livestock corrals and other infrastructure. Meanwhile, the snow leopard population seems to have remained stable, if not grown, Hussain said.

Snow Leopard Perspective Controversial

Not everyone agrees. In fact, there is great consternation in the big-cat conservation community about Hussain’s ideas, particularly that conservation groups don’t work with locals. (Learn about National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.)

Tom McCarthy, executive director of the Snow Leopard Program for the big-cat conservation group Panthera, said that he doesn’t “know a single conservation [nongovernmental organization] working on snow leopards today that would support setting up reserves for the cats at the expense of local people.”

For example, before Hussain set up the Snow Leopard Project, McCarthy and colleagues founded the award-winning Snow Leopard Enterprises, which helps local people in snow leopard countries generate income.

Conservation biologist and snow leopard expert Jerry Roe also said by email that relabeling the snow leopard as domestic will not resolve the conflict between snow leopards and herders or benefit the species.

For one, “a change of definition will not alter the perspective of snow leopards as a pest species in the eyes of herders,” said Roe, co-founder of California-based Nomad Ecology, an ecological consulting and research company.

Living with Snow Leopards

Hussain thinks the objections are just not valid. Local people—at least in Pakistan—do not have an “atavistic enmity to snow leopards, [nor] this itch to kill it,” he said. “If they get compensated for their losses, they have no interest in eliminating this animal.”

Such is the case with Mohammed Ibrahim, chairman of Skoyo Krabathang Basingo Conservation and Development Organization in Krabathang, Pakistan (map), who also owns 15 goats. In a phone interview with an Urdu interpreter, Ibrahim said that he’s not worried about snow leopards, mostly because of insurance schemes such as Project Snow Leopard that compensate herders for lost animals.

And since snow leopards have never been known to attack people, Hussain is confident that his scheme would work far better than a conservation policy that separates the leopards from the locals: “The idea of co-existing with snow leopards is easy to implement if you satisfy the villagers.”

Ultimately, conservationists share the same goal: Ensuring that the snow leopard —what Hussain calls a “symbol of the high mountains”—can survive. Whether that will continue to be an animal dependent on people for food, though, is still up in the air.