A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World
The Chinese mountain cat Felis bieti is found only in China and has a very limited distribution. Little to no information exists regarding the status or abundance of this elusive species. Although it has been widely reported across western China, many records are unconfirmed or erroneous. These authors examined museum specimens and reports from across China and concluded that the only confirmed specimens of the Chinese mountain cat came from the eastern and north-eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai and Sichuan. These two provinces account for all confirmed records of the Chinese mountain cat.
A dubious record from Sichuan province claimed that the Chinese mountain cat occurs in the same area as the giant panda, in montane bamboo forest. However, extensive camera trapping in panda habitat has never yielded a single photograph of a Chinese mountain cat.
Most reports are for skins collected in markets or villages rather than from actual observations. Often the true origin of specimens or skins is unknown and thus not recorded. Skins collected in one area and sold in another have led to confusion regarding the distribution and habitat of the Chinese mountain cat. Specimens such as those found in Sichuan are speculated to have come from the local area or from the borderlands of the extreme western edge of Sichuan Province or from the Tibetan Plateau. There are no records of occurrence in any protected areas, and there is no information regarding population trend.
The first photographs of a wild Chinese mountain cat were taken only very recently by camera traps during light snow in May 2007 at 3570 m altitude. Actual pictures were taken later in that year. These photographs were taken in rolling grasslands and brush-covered mountains. The Chinese mountain cat occurs in high-elevation steppe grassland, alpine meadow, alpine shrubland and coniferous forest edges, between 2500 m and 5000 m in elevation; it has not been confirmed in true desert or heavily forested mountains. Six Chinese mountain cat burrows were located at 3000-3600 m above sea level. The Chinese mountain cat copes with extremely high and low temperatures, and moves easily through snow in a windy and seasonally inhospitable habitat.
There are two threats to the continued existence of the Chinese mountain cat: widespread poisoning programs and the skin trade. Small mammal control programs using poison to eradicate pikas, voles and moles from large areas are sanctioned by the government. Pikas are believed to compete for graze with domestic livestock. Between 1958 and 1978, large-scale poisoning campaigns were conducted in both Qinghai and Sichuan Provinces as well as in Gansu Province and Tibet. The program was terminated with the discovery that carnivores that preyed on pikas were also victims of poisoning. However, smaller scale poisonings continue throughout much of the Chinese mountain cat’s range and affect both rodents and lagomorphs. Such poisoning programs cause general environmental pollution and are likely to be a human health hazard as well.
Direct killing by local pastoralists for the skin trade and for articles of clothing and accessories is also a threat to Chinese mountain cat populations. For instance, traditional hats are made from Chinese mountain cat pelts. Locals kill Chinese mountain cats by either trapping or poisoning the cat. Depending on how often such an event occurs, local pastoralists can with patience and time extirpate a local population one individual at a time. Skins are sold openly in street-side shops and are commonly found in markets in Xining and southern China. There are no reliable figures for the number of skins in trade and most numbers were gathered through direct observation. In Sichuan Province, thirty pelts were taken in 1980. In 1986, George Schaller counted sixteen Chinese mountain cat skins for sale in the markets in Lingxia, Gansu Province, but reported that they were less common than those of Eurasian lynx.
The illegal fur trade might well still continue. In 1998 and 2001 around 50 skins were reported to be on sale at Songpan and Jiuzhaigou markets, even though the species is protected throughout China by laws. The widespread and open availability of skins suggest that local law enforcement officials are either unaware of the law or reluctant to enforce it. Possible records form Qinghai suggest that Chinese mountain cats might also be crossbreeding with domestic cats.
Current and future protection measures
Sanjiangyuan Reserve, Qinghai Lake Reserve and Jiuzhaigou Reserve have been created within the range of the Chinese mountain cat, but most of the species’ range is not protected.
With respect to poisoning control programs, research has found that pikas reach their greatest densities and cause greatest damage when rangeland has already been significantly degraded by domestic stock, suggesting that authorities should focus their efforts to prevent over-grazing. Healthy predator populations also limit pika numbers at no cost to humans; pikas are an important food source for a variety of carnivores and birds of prey including the Chinese mountain cat.
A survey is needed to increase understanding of the distribution and range, and to estimate the population size of the Chinese mountain cat. Political action and law enforcement is required to limit illegal hunting and trade.
Source: IUCN Cat News Special Issue 5; Authors Yin Yufeng, Drubgyal Naktsang, J Sanderson
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