One hundred and fifteen years.

That’s how long it took before we got a wild photo of China’s only native feline. And that was after an 11-hour bus journey, and four years of dogged searching before that (pun entirely intended).

Like a more reserved domestic cat, the Chinese mountain cat isn’t a fan of collars, so we have no tracking data either. All we have to go on are camera traps, paw prints in the snow, and any who were unlucky enough to end up a fancy and highly illegal market hat. Given that the jury’s still out as to whether it’s a subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris, there’ve been cases of mistaken identity over the years as well. Even by zoos and museums.

Mystery moggy

In 2007, the same year of the first wild photo, Lanzhou Zoo’s Chinese mountain cat enclosure was labelled “Asiatic golden cat”:

Well, the description is TECHNICALLY correct <hand-wave hand-wave>. Image by Karen Stout.

In another case that’s equal parts awful and hilarious, a skin at the Natural History Museum in London, thought to be from a subspecies in 1943, turned out to be a domestic cat. Another incorrect label is the “Chinese desert cat”, mainly because this mountain moggy wouldn’t touch desert with a barge pole, roaming instead among grassy steppes and alpine forest at up to 5,000 metres (16,404ft) altitude. That would explain the dense fur, as well as the wardrobe change.

Blend in with the crowd

In winter, a floofy light grey coat is all the rage to blend in with the snowy surroundings, but in summer, you need light brown to bring the prey down. In fact, in some areas of Tibet it’s known as the “grass cat”, as its coat perfectly matches the long grass for stalking rabbits, pikas, and rodents, which make up about 90% of its diet.

That’s not surprising when there’s plenty of them, and thanks to its abnormally large auditory bones, the cat can hear them in their underground tunnels roughly 5 cm (2 inches) below the surface. It probably hears us coming a mile off too, and if not blending into the grass, makes a dash for the safety of its burrow.

Cat cave

Like the Tibetan fox, the Chinese mountain cat has a penchant for south-facing dwellings, but whether that’s for the same reason – resistance against blazing sunshine or plummeting temperatures – is unclear.

It’s nice enough to share it with its love, at least in the January-March breeding season, and Mum will keep her litter of 2-4 kittens safely snug until they’re packed off into the big wide world 8 months later. A cosy remote burrow and an appetite for farm pests should protect it, but as you’ve probably guessed, this is not a lucky cat.

Image by 西宁野生动物园

The figurative and literal hunter

Cat Specialist Group member Dr. Jim Sanderson, who spent the aforementioned four years looking for it, was only able to trace it from its skin. During one of many trips to China, he stumbled across a village where people were wearing strangely familiar hats. After explaining his search for the Chinese mountain cat, he was approached by someone who had seen it in his village, and after the never-ending bus ride, Sanderson arrived to find even more cat-skin accoutrements.

He and his team were able to capture the first wild (and living!) photo up in the mountains nearby, but they realised pretty quickly that it had a problem. If the local outfits weren’t enough of a clue, here’s another one: given the thousands of miles of Tibetan plateau, it wasn’t habitat loss.

Despite being a protected species, the Chinese mountain cat is still hunted to make clothing and furniture coverings, either by snare, or free poisoned meat delivery straight to its door. It’s then a case of following the trail of snowy paw prints and grabbing the unfortunate kitty at the end of it.

This one escaped thanks to facial reconstructive surgery.

On the other hand, Sanderson did voice some hope in a 2008 interview with nature news site Mongabay:

One person eliminated that threat across all Tibet — the Dali Lama. When he said, “I am tired of my people killing animals and wearing animal skins” people across all Tibet listened and stopped killing the cats and everything else as far as we can tell. I wish I had that kind of pull.

This was just part of a longer statement that involved other issues  […] Even though it was a positive thing for conservation, it was a very politically charged time because people were listening to the Dali Lama.

Unfortunately, the Chinese mountain cat’s still waiting for an upgrade from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which would mean no import or trading whatsoever except for scientific or other non-commercial purposes. The subspecies question is still up in the air, and as we have seen with the New Guinea singing dog, being a possible subspecies can endanger your legal protection somewhat.

Happily, it made another appearance in the news more recently – and for a good reason.

Smile for the cameras

Just last year, researchers from the ShanShui Conservation Institute spotted a Chinese mountain cat den while scouring the landscape for an entirely different species. Naturally.

They set up a camera trap, and managed to film a female and two adorable kitties, who after leaving for a brief spell, returned a few months later to frolic in the snow and paw at the camera.

The age of the internet tells us we can’t get enough of cats, so hopefully more japes like these will inspire more research and protection for this reclusive kitty. A living cat as furniture or a hat is far more amusing and memorable anyway.

TLDR

Latin: Felis bieti

What? Small wild cat endemic to China.

Where? Alpine grassland, steppes, mountains and mountainous conifer forests on the Tibetan plateau.

How big? 60-85 cm  / 1.9-2.8 feet long, and 34 cm / 1.1 feet at the shoulder.

Endangered? Considered Vulnerable, but it has a restricted range, and is only really “protected” on paper from the illegal fur trade and poisoning.

Probable motto: I’m a wild cat, so keep your grubby hands off my fur, attached or not.

They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?

Illegal poaching and poisoning are enemy number one, but I couldn’t find any current conservation drives for the Chinese mountain cat, possibly due to its Vulnerable status. This might change once it’s upgraded to CITES Appendix I, but in the meantime, the Wildlife Conservation Society China has some projects in the Tibetan plateau and against illegal poaching of endangered species.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Braun, David Max. 2015. “Secrets of the World’s 38 Species of Wild Cats“. National Geographic Newsroom.

Butler, Rhett A. 2008. “Often overlooked, small wild cats are important and in trouble“. Mongabay.

Chinese mountain cat“. 2018. Birding Beijing.

Chinese mountain cat“. No date. Cat Specialist Group.

Chinese mountain cat“. No date. International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada.

The Chinese mountain cats are growing up!” 2018. Birding Beijing.

He, Li, et al. 2004. “Distribution and conservation status of the endemic Chinese mountain cat Felis bieti“, Oryx 38(1):55-61.

Hunter, Luke. 2015. “Wild cats of the world“. Bloomsbury.

Maihofer, Laura. No date. “Felis bieti“. Animal Diversity Web.

Milne-Edwards, A. 1892. “Observations sur les mammiféres du Thibet“, Bulletin biologique de la France et de la Belgique, p. 670. Université de Paris. [In French]

Rare Chinese cat captured on film“. 2007. National Geographic.

Rare Chinese mountain cats captured on video for first time“. 2018. The Independent.

Riordan, P., et al. 2015. “Felis bietiThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2015: e.T8539A50651398.

Sanderson, Jim, et al. 2010. “Of the only endemic cat species in China“. CATnews Special Issue 5.

Smith, Andrew T., and Xie, Yan (editors). 2008. “A guide to the mammals of China“. Princeton University Press.

Featured image credit: “Chinese desert cat”, ID 90331843 © Lianquan Yu | Dreamstime.com