Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) must be one of the most poorly known cats in the world. With a very small known range on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (Qinghai and northwest Sichuan), it is the only cat endemic to China and it was as recently as 2007 that it was first photographed in the wild (via a camera trap).
Chinese Mountain Cat is so poorly known that a young Chinese scientist who wanted to study it for his PhD was told by his supervisor that there simply wasn’t enough information to warrant a PhD and to focus on another mammal. In recent years there have been sporadic sightings in Rouergai (Sichuan Province) and near Yushu (Qinghai Province) but it remains one of the most mysterious felids on the planet.
It was therefore with some excitement that I heard about the discovery of an active den while in the Valley of the Cats, near Yushu, in mid-September and was fortunate and privileged to be taken to the site by the finder, local ShanShui employee Dawa.
Dawa had been working with Han Xuesong, ShanShui’s project lead on another Tibetan Plateau species – Black-necked Crane – when he spotted movement alongside the road. Thinking the animal was a Tibetan Fox, common in the area, he grabbed his camera and took a series of photographs. It was only when he later looked through the images that he realised he had photographed not a Tibetan Fox but a cat.. and after circulating the images to colleagues at ShanShui, it was soon confirmed as a Chinese Mountain Cat, a poorly known and rarely seen felid.
On returning to the site, the ShanShui staff were delighted to find not one cat but three – a mother with two young kittens. They had found an active den – possibly the first ever discovered in the wild. The location, close to a road, meant that the cats appeared to be relatively used to seeing people and so, not long after, while the mother cat was away from the den hunting for prey, Dawa and Xuesong placed a camera trap close to one of the three entrances to the den (thought to be an old Himalayan Marmot hole). The resulting footage is spectacular and, courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center, a compilation can be seen below.
The three cats performed magnificently for the camera trap for several days until, late in September, the mother led her kittens to another, unknown, site. The hours of footage will undoubtedly add significantly to the current knowledge of Chinese Mountain Cat, including breeding ecology, diet and behaviour. And with local people commenting that this cat is seen frequently in the area, this find may turn out to be just the beginning of a new insight into this most mysterious of cats. The perfect subject for a PhD!
Big congratulations to Dawa, Xuesong and the ShanShui team for their discovery and for capturing such riveting and intimate footage of China’s only endemic cat.
Here are some still images from the camera trap.
UPDATE Nov 2018: More footage of the kittens in the snow can be seen here.
Title photo, still images and video clip all courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center.