In addition to field projects supported across range countries PICA has developed a number of new research projects both in-situ and ex-situ that are allowing us to explore new avenues for enhancing our knowledge, engagement and techniques that will help further our long term conservation efforts.
Previous research carried out by PICA staff at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park studied and analysed captive Pallas’s cat vocalisations through the breeding season with the aim of using the data to help adapt breeding management techniques. Individual vocalisations from this piece of work have, through a collaboration with PICA and an MSc student, been used to undertake a study that explores the potential value of Pallas’s cat vocalisations as a lure that could be used in the field during camera trapping projects. It is no surprise that a species as elusive and shy as the Pallas’s cat have a low detection rate during field surveys whether the monitoring technique is camera trapping, snow tracking or visual observations. Should this piece of research indicate that, when compared to other lures for example olfactory lures, using vocalisations increases the detection rate of the species then further work will be carried out to trial the technique in range countries. With the “true” distribution of the species still unclear across several Central Asian countries it is clear that any new techniques that allow for more effective presence / absence surveys will be of great long term benefit.
With the smaller, less studied species like Pallas’s cat it can be the case that once a new piece of information is documented, regardless of how accurate it is, it can quickly become a general statement for the species and go unchanged for several years. This is no more true than with threats. With species that have an extensive range, like the Pallas’s cat, it is of no surprise that there will often be a wide range of threats that vary across different range countries. It is important however that threats from one part of the range are not automatically assumed to be the same in another part of the range. There is also the challenge of separating “assumed threats” from “actual threats”. This again is where accuracy in data is of great importance. As an example if we were to find ten Pallas’s cat skins inside a household that is within Pallas’s cat territory it would be easy to assume that hunting was a threat in that given area. However as much as the species may be hunted in that area it would only be a threat if it had a negative impact on the population of the area.
It is of course fair to say that obtaining the right data from the right places in such a way will be a long term challenge but PICA have started to develop techniques that will, as a starting point, give a clearer indication toward regional threat variations or similarities.
Using standardised threat surveys for both field researchers and herders living and working across range countries PICA aim to collect data from as many Pallas’s cat range countries as possible that will not only shed greater light on the potential threats in the field but also the perceived threats of the researchers working in those areas.
These surveys have been translated for use in several languages and are freely downloadable here for use with any field expedition or study.
Having the support of project partners not only increases the capacity of PICA but can also provide access to new resources that otherwise would be unavailable. One of the greatest resources that PICA has available, as a result of the partnership with Snow Leopard Trust, is access to their long term Snow leopard camera trapping image database carried out across numerous Central Asian countries. With Snow leopard and Pallas’s cat sharing much of the same habitat and range these images can be a quick and valuable resource to identify Pallas’s cat presence and, should there be sufficient data, provide new information on activity patterns and association with other species. In this way it can be seen as efforts to improve the understanding of a big cat like the snow leopard are indirectly improving our understanding of a small cat like the Pallas’s cat.
With a database of over 500,000 images it is clear that this is not a one person job. To assist with the screening, recording and analysis of the data PICA has formed a small but dedicated team of volunteers and students. In addition to the team of volunteers and students PICA has also established a key partnership with the Zoological Society of London with one of their Senior Wildlife Biologists being appointed as a technical data advisor for PICA, focussing on the camera trap analysis data.
The analysis of camera trap field data is however not restricted to just previous Snow leopard trust data. Relationships between PICA and Pallas’s cat field researchers provides options for further support with data recording and analysis which may relieve pressure and valuable time that researchers can put toward other field activities. The PICA camera trap team have already assisted with the analysis and reporting of field data from Uzbekistan.
An important objective for PICA is to educate people and raise awareness of the species with a focus on range countries. It is important however that we make efforts to understand the existing knowledge or rather lack of knowledge of local people toward the species and make efforts to understand any change in attitude or knowledge over time following the distribution of educational materials. To do this PICA is supporting an MSc student in Mongolia that will conduct field surveys in known Pallas’s cat locations in the South Gobi, focusing on attitudes, current knowledge, access to information, threats and awareness of Pallas’s cats and the surrounding environment. Following these surveys, which will cover over 150 households, posters, leaflets and pocket guides (link to the materials) will be distributed and left with the each household. The following year surveys will be repeated as a means assessing any changes or benefits with using the educational materials. Over time the data from this research will allow PICA to create robust tools that can be used across range countries whilst allowing more targeted distribution and delivery.