The Tibetan Fox (Vulpes ferrilata) is a rather curious and mysterious animal. Although it is not uncommon, little is really known about its habits. It was first captured on film in 2006, during filming for the BBC natural history series, Planet Earth. It is also known as the Tibetan Sand Fox, or simply the Sand Fox.
The Tibetan Fox's range is centred around the Tibetan plateau, but also stretches from the Ladakh area of India, parts of Nepal, and parts of the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan. The density of fox populations are low, mostly due to the barren nature of the environment. In 1989 a survey of the Tibetan Fox population of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China produced a population figure of 37,000.
The Tibetan fox is a fairly small animal (for a fox) measuring around 50 to 70 cm in body length, with another 20 to 30 cm for the tail. It weighs between three and four kg for females and 3.8 to 4.6 kg for males, and stands around 30 cm high. It has a soft, very dense coat to keep it warm (living as it does on the high Tibetan plateau). Its fur is reddish brown on its muzzle, neck, back and lower legs, with a grey rump and upper legs. The undersides are white or light grey. It has very well developed canines, more so that most foxes.
But why the square head?It has a strangely shaped face, like that of a square with rounded corners, with small triangular ears pricking up from the top. In a way it resembles the face of an owl, with fur radiating out from the centre, framing its face with a kind of ruff.
- David Attenborough, narrating Planet Earth.
Very little is known about the way this animal lives. They are thought to live in burrows in the rocks, with multiple entrances to the den. They mate for life, and will also hunt with their mate.
The mating season spans February and March and after a gestation of 50 to 60 days, two to five kits, weighing 60-120 grams, are born. These young stay with their parents for eight to ten months before leaving the den. Although the kits will search for their own territory, this species is nowhere near as territorial as other foxes. As a consequence there is a certain haziness about the borders of the territories.
Much of the Tibetan Fox's diet is black-lipped Pika. It also hunts other rodents and ground birds. It is not averse to scavenging, and eats dead Tibetan antelopes when it can get it. In leaner times it will also eat insects and plants, especially Ephedra berries. Depending on what is around it will take what it can get, from marmots and musk deer to domesticated livestock.
Living at a height of between 2,500 and 5,200 metres, the Tibetan Fox needs its thick fur to protect itself from temperatures dropping to -40 degrees Celsius in winter. But in summer it can reach 30 degrees above freezing. Much of its habitat consists of alpine meadow, alpine steppe, and desert steppe, all treeless vegetation types. Rainfall is rather low in these areas, meaning the fox must be careful to conserve its water reserves.
Although they tend to avoid areas of human habitation, Tibetan hunters prize the fox's fur for its insulating properties. They like to use it to make warm hats. But since the population densities of both humans and foxes are low, hunting poses little real threat to the species, though the population may fluctuate from year to year. As Tibet slowly becomes more modern and industrialised, humans have begun to encroach on fox habitat. That said, the fox's conservation status is still classified as 'least concern'.