This series routinely discusses species of animals and plants that are poorly known in the international community. Perhaps no species mentioned so far fits as well into the category of “endangered unknown” as the Chinese Desert Cat, Felis bieti. There are various reasons for its anonymity, including its secretive nature, lack of presence in captivity, and the areas it inhabits.
The species is very discernible from other small cat species, however, due to its large size (twice the size of a domestic cat) and physical appearance. This cat’s yellow-gray fur allows it to blend in perfectly with its surroundings while its broad skull and enlarged ears serve to enhance its prey detection. Finally, the cat has a y-shaped mark on its face and a black-tipped tail that distinguishes it from other cats that share its habitat, such as the Asian Wildcat and Eurasian Lynx.
Native to China and Mongolia, the Chinese Desert Cat lives in mountainous habitats ranging from semidesert and steppe to bamboo forest and alpine meadows. Here it is believed to live in the burrows of other animals during the day which also function as birthing dens for females. Females give birth to usually two or three young in May and probably catch pikas and small birds to feed their young once they’re weaned. The only other aspect of its ecology that is somewhat well-known involves this cat’s tenacious nature.
During a Chinese animal collecting expedition in 1923, a scientist named Dr. Weigold followed what he believed to be a Chinese Desert Cat with his foxhound in the hopes of capturing this elusive animal. After a long chase, the dog caught up with the cat and a fight ensued. When the dog came out of the thicket where it had been fighting the cat, it had two large bite marks on its face and the whereabouts of the cat were unknown.
The following day, Dr. Weigold went back to where the cat had last been seen and he found it sitting peacefully in the spot where the fight occurred without any serious injuries whatsoever. That story should be reason enough to save this fantastic creature that is sadly threatened with extinction.
Almost everything known about this cat comes either from fur trapper reports, or from the furs that are subsequently sold in Chinese markets. Nobody knows exactly how many Chinese Desert Cats remain, but most agree that it is a rare species. Few scientists have ever seen this species in the wild, much less studied it, and field research is absolutely necessary to determine how many of these animals remain. Given the fact that most of the information about them comes from dead specimens; it is likely that their numbers are declining in at least some of the areas in which they live.
Pikas, their main source of prey, are getting poisoned in many areas of China and this, in turn, has the potential to kill the cats that rely on them for food. Habitat loss, which is such a pervasive threat in China, is also likely threatening this species, especially in more forested areas. Finally, since few cats exist in captivity, they could be in real danger if their numbers ever fell low enough to warrant a recovery plan. It would be a real pity to lose an animal we know so little about at this stage in the game and safeguarding its population in the future should be a main priority for Chinese conservationists.
Sunquist, Melvin E., and Fiona Sunquist. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002. Print.
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