Other Names
Chinese desert cat (English)
chat de Biet (French)
Graukatze (German)
gato de Biet, gato del deserto de China (Spanish)
mo mao, huang mo mao, cao shihli (Chinese)
shel misigi (Kazakh)
qel müshüki (Uygur)
  • Description and Behavior

  • Biology

  • Habitat and Distribution

  • Population Status

  • Protection Status

  • Principal Threats

  • References

  • Description and Behavior
    The Chinese mountain cat, endemic to China, is one of the least-known cats. It has a stocky build, with relatively short legs. Its coat is pale grey-fawn in winter, somewhat darker brown in the summer, and marked with indistinct horizontal stripes on the sides and legs. Its ears have slight dark brown tufts. The tail is fairly short (35 cm: Jacobi 1923), about 40% of head-body length; it is banded with 5-6 dark grey bands, and has a black tip. The auditory bullae are moderately large, measuring about 25% of total skull length (Pocock 1951). A wild male and female brought to the Beijing Zoo weighed nine and 6.5 kg, respectively (Tan 1984).

    What little is known of this species in the wild is mainly due to the efforts of collectors from the Xining Zoo, who obtained 34 specimens between 1973-1985 (Liao 1988, B. Tan in litt. 1991). Chinese mountain cats are predominantly nocturnal, active from dusk to dawn in captivity (B. Tan in litt. 1991), and hunting primarily in the early morning and evening in the wild (Liao 1988). They rest and tend their young in burrows, typically situated on south-facing slopes. Males and females live separately, and the burrows inhabited by females tend to be deeper and more secure, with only one entrance (Liao 1988). Scat analysis indicates that rodents are the major prey (90%), primarily mole-rats, white-tailed pine vole, and pikas. Birds, including pheasants, are also caught. Liao (1988) observed mountain cats hunting mole rats by listening for their movements through their subterranean tunnels (3-5 cm below the surface), and digging them out.

    Reproductive season:
    (C & W):
    January-March mating season, litters often born in May

    Litter size: 2-4

    Age at independence: 7-8 months (Liao 1988)

    Habitat and Distribution
    The Chinese mountain cat is known only from the north-eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau (Figure 2). It has been collected most frequently from Qinghai province, but also from the mountains of southern Gansu and northern Sichuan. Reports of it occurring further north and east, in flatter, more desert-like terrain (F.b. chutuchta and F.b. vellerosa: Pocock 1951), probably refer respectively to mis-identified specimens of Asian desert wildcat and domestic cat (Haltenorth 1953, Groves 1980). It may occur along the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, in the desert mountains of Xinjiang (Pamir and Kunlun Mountains: Wang and Wang 1986, X. Gao in litt. 1993), but such reports have yet to be confirmed (Achuff and Petocz 1988, A. Abdukadir in litt. 1993). The southernmost records near Chengdu (Figure 2) are from the same sort of area where the giant panda is found, an entirely different habitat type consisting of montane bamboo forest. Allen (1938) notes that these specimens, obtained in the late 1800s in the fur markets of Tatsienlu and Sungpan (Sichuan province), were probably not locally obtained, and speculates that they came from “the borderlands of the extreme western edge of China or even from Tibet”.

    According to Liao (1988), the Chinese mountain cat is found throughout the Datong and Daban mountains around Xining (where eight skins were collected by Buchner in 1893: Groves 1980), at elevations ranging from 2,800-4,100 m. It chiefly inhabits alpine meadows and scrub. It has also been found in hilly loess steppe and coniferous forest edge. Despite its traditional name (Chinese desert cat), it appears not to be a desert cat at all (Groves 1980), although it may occur there marginally (Liao 1988; A. Abdukadir, X. Gao in litt. 1993). Chinese specialists meeting in Beijing in 1992 concurred with Groves’ (1980) suggestion that it be described as the “mountain cat” (Jackson 1992b).

    Population Status
    Global: Category 2
    Regional (Asia): Category 1
    IUCN: Insufficiently known

    There is no information on status or abundance, and no records of occurrence in protected areas. The Chinese mountain cat appears to have a very limited distribution, but may have a much wider range further west on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. It is interesting that Liao (1988) collected most of his animals from mountainous areas very close to Xining and Lanzhou, the capitals of Qinghai and Gansu provinces.

    Protection Status
    Protection Status: CITES Appendix II

    National Legislation:
    Fully protected in China.

    The species is currently classified as a Category II species under Chinese law, and the 1992 meeting of the Cat Specialist Group in Beijing recommended upgrading to Category I, which requires permission of national, rather than provincial, authorities to hunt or trade.

    Principal Threats
    Large-scale poisoning campaigns have been conducted since 1958 in China in an attempt to control “pest” populations of pikas, which are viewed as competitors of domestic livestock for graze. Zinc phosphide was one of the main chemicals used (G. Schaller in litt. 1992), from the onset of control efforts up until 1978, when its use was discontinued because it was discovered that it also killed carnivores that preyed on pikas. Control programmes using poisonous chemicals continue throughout much of the Chinese mountain cat’s range (Smith et al. 1990), and have eradicated pikas from large areas (A. Smith pers. comm. 1994). However, research has indicated that pikas reach their greatest densities and cause greatest damage when rangeland has already been significantly degraded by domestic stock (Shi 1983, Zhong et al. 1985), suggesting that the authorities could most effectively control pika populations by focusing their efforts on measures to prevent over-grazing. Healthy predator populations should serve to limit pika numbers, as pikas are an important food source for a variety of carnivores and birds of prey (Smith et al. 1990).

    No other threats are known. G. Schaller (in litt. 1992) noted that pelts of this species can be commonly found in markets in Xining, and Low (1991) saw two mounted specimens for sale in southern China. It would seem unlikely, however, that hunting efforts specifically target the mountain cat.

    © 1996 IUCN - The World Conservation Union