David Attenborough once described the elusive manul as the world’s grumpiest cat. If you were a grumpy cat, you’d probably want to avoid company, too. And what better place for solitude than the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain?
This appears to be the newest-known haunt of the manul, or Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul), a cold-adapted species about the size of a domestic cat. Its range is already known to include other parts of the Himalayas, stretching east to Siberia and west to the Iranian Plateau.
A recent study published in the journal CATnews that analysed scat samples in the region around Sagarmatha (also known as Mount Everest) found evidence of at least two of the cats living in the region, going undetected for many years by the tourists and mountain climbers who pass through.
“When we found a scat, we didn’t know which animal it belonged to. We just collected the samples and brought it to our lab,” Tracie Seimon, who led the study under the 2019 National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, told Mongabay.
Collecting scat wasn’t the primary objective of Seimon’s team, who worked in the Khumbu Valley on the southern flank of the mountain for more than four weeks. They were actually collecting water samples to analyse environmental deoxyribonucleic acid – trace amounts of genetic material shed by living organisms – that would provide clues to identifying the different species prevalent in the region. “But since this was an opportunistic sighting of the scat, we decided to take samples,” she said.
When Seimon, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, and her team compared the deoxyribonucleic acid found in the scat to a database of known species, they found it to be of the manul. Interestingly, however, the environmental deoxyribonucleic acid samples from the water in the valley didn’t turn up traces of the cat. Siemon said this could be because environmental deoxyribonucleic acid samples are transient and don’t always capture all species present in an environment.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global wildlife conservation authority, includes the whole of the Himalayan range as part of the manul’s range. But the cats have only infrequently been spotted in the Himalayas, and never before confirmed in the eastern Himalayas of Nepal, which includes the Sagarmatha area.
Manuls were first recorded in the western Himalayas, in India, in the late 80s, and again in early 2000s. Then, in September 2007, conservationist Pranav Chanchani, from the Wildlife Institute of India, photographed one of the cats in the eastern Himalayas, in Sikkim that borders eastern Nepal.
The presence of the cat near Nepal’s border caught the attention of researchers, but even the extensive network of camera traps that World Wide Fund for Nature- Nepal had set up in 2011 on Kanchenjunga – the third-highest mountain in the world, straddling India and Nepal – to monitor snow leopards didn’t capture any images of the smaller cat.
The manul’s presence in Nepal was finally confirmed in 2012 by a team led by Bikram Shrestha from the non-governmental organisation Snow Leopard Conservancy. Camera traps in the Annapurna region of the western Himalayas captured images of the cat. Later, more images were recorded at Humla and Dolpa in the western Himalayas. Camera trap images also confirmed its presence the same year in Bhutan, further east of Nepal.
So by this time, the manul had shown up in Sikkim, east of Sagarmatha, and in Annapurna, west of Sagarmatha. For researchers, it must have seemed only a matter of time before it finally made an appearance near the world’s highest mountain.
Well, it did, and it didn’t. The scat samples, collected in 2019 at elevations of 5,110 and 5,190 meters, are the only evidence the cats were ever there; there are no photos.
“The current confirmation of Pallas’s cat in the Everest region is very exciting news as the species’s distribution range is expanding in Nepal,” said conservationist Rinzin Phunjok Lama. “This also shows that non-invasive methods such as genetics can be effective to conduct rapid presence-absence surveys of the animal in other areas in Nepal.”
Shrestha, who led the study documenting the first camera-trap image of the animal in Nepal in 2012, said he’s not entirely surprised that other camera-trapping efforts haven’t yielded evidence of the manul.
“We have never had people looking for Pallas’s cat in the Himalayas,” he said. “All of the images we have so far were caught when looking for other species, such as snow leopards. A typical snow leopard researcher wouldn’t go to the area where the Pallas’s cat scat was found as it doesn’t fall in the snow leopard range.”
Now that the cat’s presence has been confirmed in Nepal’s eastern Himalayas, it’s time to act to protect it despite its conservation classification as a “species of least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, conservationists said. Gangaram Regmi, a member of the Manul Working Group, said the cat’s diet offers clues to the measures needed to protect it.
From the scat, Seimon and her team found evidence that the cat ate the rabbit-like pika (Ochotona himalayana) and the mountain weasel (Mustela altaica).
“We have seen that farmers poison pikas because they disturb animal grazing,” Regmi said. “Also, overgrazing of grasslands which are potential habitats for the cat is an issue that needs to be addressed. We need to first prepare a conservation action plan for the species involving the local communities.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.