Standing on top of a rocky outcrop, Dr. Jim Sanderson—founder of Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation (SWCCF)—takes stock of the vast, spreading landscape around him. The Mongolian steppe extends into the distance, wide plains and grasslands with nary a tree to obscure the view or cast shadows. Above, a golden eagle navigates the sky, scanning the ground for movement; in a treeless landscape, any animal darting across the steppe is visible and unprotected. Below, safely tucked into a marmot hole, is a manul (also known as Pallas’s cat), a bushy, broad faced wild cat about the size of a house cat. If not careful, the manul could be a tasty meal for a golden eagle; in the expansive openness of the steppe, the safest place for this cat is underground.
Few people live in this part of Mongolia, but those who do—mainly small, isolated pockets of livestock herders—are impacting manuls’ survival. As herders utilize more land for livestock grazing, they are dramatically reducing and altering manul habitat. Herders are nomadic, moving four times per year, so they affect far more habitat than if they were stationary. Because small cats are such specialized eaters, when they lose their habitat or prey they can go extinct much faster than their larger cousins, who are more adaptable to changes.
While some manuls are hunted for their skins, they are most significantly impacted by herders killing off large numbers of marmots; shooting them to free up land for their goats, but also for their meat and skins. Unable to dig their own subterranean hideaways, manuls make their dens in marmot holes; without marmots, manuls are disappearing. This means SWCCF’s conservation approach for these small cats must focus primarily on protecting marmots and eliminating other negative effects of livestock herding.
Precious little is known about manuls; research is scarce, making it hard to determine how to protect them. Jim Sanderson is currently spending time in Mongolia trying to fill this knowledge gap and find the best way forward for manul conservation. So far, he has found, as with many conservation issues, the key to success lies with educating local children. SWCCF is already seeing that as children of herders become better educated and have access to opportunities outside of their remote communities, their economic choices extend beyond herding. Diversifying their income opportunities means the next generation on the Mongolian steppe may not be herders at all, which could benefit their way of life and make the landscape safe for wildlife. This is what SWCCF recommends for the conservation of this stocky, little-known small cat; invest in local children’s education today and build a sustainable landscape for both people and manuls tomorrow.