Cats vs. Dogs
Like its better-known cousin the snow leopard, the Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul) prowls the high deserts, steppes, and mountains of Central Asia, from Siberia to Afghanistan. The cat’s luxurious, silver-tipped fur not only insulates against the cold—Pallas’ cats live at elevations up to 18,000 feet—but also helps the cat blend into its rocky home. Pallas’ cats are notoriously difficult to spot, much less study, and have received less conservation and research funding than snow leopards. As a result, much about their life and habits remains unknown.
For Kolkata-based photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, this elusiveness only adds to the Pallas’ cat’s allure. Over the past decade, Mukherjee has traveled repeatedly to Hanle, India, a village perched next to a high-altitude marsh in the Himalayan state of Ladakh. There he has successfully photographed Himalayan wolves (Canis lupus chanco), Tibetan sand foxes (Vulpes ferrilata), black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis), and other species that live in Hanle—but no Pallas’ cat.
Mukherjee wasn’t discouraged. “Getting, not getting, doesn’t matter,” he says. “What’s important is being there. If I get something in one go, what could I have? Only a few images. But if I don’t get [it], I go again and again and I learn more about the subject and the place.”
Still, Mukherjee was happy when, in the summer of 2022, a local told him about a Pallas’ cat denning in a farmer’s grain storehouse. Mukherjee set up his camera outside the rough plaster walls, then watched for days as the housecat-sized mother hunted voles and leapt back through an open window to feed her kittens. Mukherjee was even happier when he found another denning mother, this one raising her kittens in a rocky outcrop just outside the village.
Underlying the farmer’s decision to allow the wildcat and her kittens to stay in his building was a grim reality. Free-ranging domestic dogs are common around Hanle, as they are in the rest of India, where some 35 million roam. These dogs form packs and hunt wildlife, including blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), cranes, and Pallas’ cats. They’ve even been filmed chasing snow leopards away from their kills. One researcher found that 48 percent of reported dog attacks on native Indian species happen in or near protected areas, and of these, nearly half of the victims died.
As the threat posed by these canines increases, however, so do efforts to mitigate it. Because free-ranging dogs kill more domestic livestock in some places than do native wolves or snow leopards—and don’t draw tourists the way wildlife does—locals and governments alike are stepping in.
Some measures are small, like the farmer temporarily giving up his storehouse, or a landowner fencing a wetland to keep dogs away from migrating birds. Others are more expansive. In Ladakh, for example, municipal and state governments are working to reduce the outdoor garbage piles that feed feral dog packs through special composters that work well in cold climates. State and national governments and NGOs are also capturing and sterilizing feral dogs, but critics argue that this is unrealistic in remote, wild regions, and that wildlife officials should instead be authorized to kill problem dogs.
Between predation, mining, and habitat fragmentation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has determined that Pallas’ cat populations are declining across the species’ range. Still, Mukherjee hopes that photos of Pallas’ cats like this one can engage more people in their conservation, and lead to better solutions that help cats, dogs, and people live in harmony.
Dhritiman Mukherjee is a renowned nature photographer based in India. He has received numerous national and international photography awards, including the 2014 RBS Earth Hero Award and the 2013 Carl Zeiss Conservation award. Mukherjee’s photos have been published in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, and Lonely Planet, to name a few. He typically spends 300 days a year in the field, capturing photos in a wide range of habitats, from deserts and rainforests to mountaintops and rivers. Mukherjee recently published a book titled Magical Biodiversity of India.
Krista Langlois is a freelance journalist and essayist based in Durango, Colorado. In addition to her work as a contributing editor for bioGraphic, she writes about people and nature for publications including Adventure Journal, The Atlantic, Hakai, National Geographic News, Outside, and Smithsonian. Find more at www.kristaleelanglois.com or on Twitter @cestmoilanglois.