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article imageInternational group protecting endangered Andean Mountain cat Special

By Igor I. Solar     Jun 5, 2010 in Environment
La Paz - The Andean mountain cat is one of the rarest wild cats in the world. Very little is known of this endangered feline and scientists from 4 countries are coordinating their efforts to save it from extinction. Good news on World Environment Day on June 5.
We share the planet with 36 species of wild felines. Some of them are large, such as tigers and lions (approx. 130 Kg) of India and Africa, and many are as small as, or smaller than a domestic cat.
A black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) in the zoo of Wuppertal  Germany.
A black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) in the zoo of Wuppertal, Germany.
Pierre de Chabannes
Among the smallest cat are the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) of Southern Africa and the Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) found in Southern India and Sri Lanka. These tiny wild cats often weight no more than 1 to 1.5 kg. Both are listed (IUCN) as vulnerable.
Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus)
Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus)
Lenie Beutler
In the American continent there are 12 species of wild-cats and 10 of them are described as small or medium size. The Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita) is one of the small cats. It weighs in the range of 4-7 Kg, but its long, spotted fur and long furry tail, with 7 to 9 dark rings, makes it look larger.
This small cat is one of the rarest and least known of all the wild felines. Most of the knowledge about the Andean cat comes from a few observations, some photographs and tracking of a few individuals fitted with collar radio-transmitters. There is none in captivity. The population of the Andean cat is estimated at about 2500 individuals in a range that includes the high regions, at altitudes ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 meters, of the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. Currently, it is considered as the feline species most endangered in America and among the five Felidae most threatened worldwide.
Andean Mountain Cat (Leopardus jacobita)
Andean Mountain Cat (Leopardus jacobita)
Jim Sanderson
The Andean cat has had a long relationship with humans. Unfortunately, it has not been too beneficial to the cat. L. jacobita has been considered by native Andean cultures (Quechua and Aymara people) as a sacred animal whose presence is related to the welfare of their domestic herds and the productivity of their crops. The cat’s skins are still being used in ceremonies at the time of marking of llamas and alpacas, and during sowing and harvest periods. The fact that the cats are rather confident and not afraid of humans has not helped. Based on ancient superstitions, indigenous people kill the cats to take their skins. According to a publication by Sanderson and Villalba, when asking the native people how they got the skins of the cats, the answer was always: “we drop a rock on them.”
Other reasons for the decline of the Andean cat are the fragmentation of their population in an extensive area and, to a certain degree, a reduction in the genetic variability of the animals.
Several scientists from the four Andean countries that are habitat to this endangered cat are coordinating efforts to increase the knowledge of this rare cat and develop a long term conservation plan including the study of its biology and measures to increase awareness on the plight of this animal in its environment among the local people and tourist operators in the area.
Andean Mountain Cat photographed with a motion-sensitive camera-trap
Andean Mountain Cat photographed with a motion-sensitive camera-trap
AGA©M.L. Villalba, E. Delgado
To learn more about the efforts currently underway to promote the conservation of this rare carnivore, I interviewed three of the leading members of the Andean Cat Alliance (AGA) Rocío Palacios, Lilian Villalba and Mauro Lucherini. Rocío and Mauro are Argentine researchers and Lilian works from La Paz, Bolivia. They share the coordination of the AGA activities.
The researchers believe that that there are several threats to the survival of the Andean cat and all relate to human activities:
These are often related to the extractive activities of non-renewable resources (mining, oil) that can cause habitat loss, environmental degradation or destruction of key environments such as wetlands. The extraction of firewood is another human activity that can severely affect the Andean cat. A third threat is hunting, which has different purposes. Depending on locations, the cats are hunted to obtain their skin and use them in Andean rituals and local marketing; the animals are killed because they are considered as harmful to domestic livestock and poultry, and through accidental hunting or killings for no apparent reason.
Another cause of concern is the decrease in the prey of the cat, also attributed to human activity:
The Chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera and C. brevicaudata) used to be an important prey of the Andean cat. The strong reduction or local extinction of chinchillas, caused by the increase in the fur trade during the last century, may be a reason why the Andean cat population is now so low.
At present, the impacts of climate change may also affect the Andean cat as the decrease of water, either by low and/or irregular rainfall and melting of glaciers, is affecting the permanence of the Andean wetlands. In an arid environment, these sites of high primary productivity are very relevant to the permanency of herbivorous species. In the case of the Andean cat, these sites are important habitat for the cat's main prey, the viscacha (Lagidium spp) and also for other wildlife.
A vizcacha (Lagidium viscacia)  prey of the Andean Mountain cat  near Rio Grande  in the Atacama des...
A vizcacha (Lagidium viscacia), prey of the Andean Mountain cat, near Rio Grande, in the Atacama desert, Chile.
Alexandre Buisse
There are several activities coordinated by AGA aimed at the conservation of this rare species:
Each country prioritize its actions. In some cases there is more emphasis on research and education, on raising awareness and other activities aimed at supporting the management of protected areas where the Andean cat is present. Because the conservation of natural resources cannot be achieved without the cooperation of local populations, AGA dedicates a considerable effort to environmental education and community involvement. The AGA representatives from Argentina state:
We are developing educational activities in the north of the country where permanent human populations exists in the area of distribution of the Andean cat. These educational campaigns have extended for several years with outstanding results generating local conservation officers. In the same area, we are currently conducting the first study on the abundance of the Andean cat population, based on trapping and an extraordinary photographic sampling effort, which has demonstrated the low population number of this cat.
Villalba, the AGA representative from Bolivia adds:
We have plans, in partnership with other institutions and local Bolivian authorities, to establish a conservation and research station. The objective is to develop studies on the Andean cat and other wildlife, from which management initiatives can be implemented or for other indirect uses, such as tourism. Other ongoing activities are a tri-national project (Argentina-Bolivia and Chile) and an educational and awareness project in coordination with two museums of Bolivia. Through a High Andes biodiversity exhibit, we want to show the importance of this ecological region, its fauna, in particular the Andean cat, to students from urban settings as well as to those from rural locations in the high Andean region.
Habitat of the Andean Mountain Cat. Lope Jara - Southwest Bolivia (~4100 m.a.s.l.)
Habitat of the Andean Mountain Cat. Lope Jara - Southwest Bolivia (~4100 m.a.s.l.)
AGA©M.L. Villalba
The researchers are generally pleased with their achievements:
The development of the 2004 Action Plan for conservation has been an important contribution, since from it we have prioritized courses of action (research, education and community participation, and management support). This has also allowed the design of activities and projects within each area to be carried out in the four countries included in the range of the Andean cat. The Action Plan has been the basis of the current Strategic Plan that we are building within AGA which should establish conservation actions for the next five years.
The AGA coordinators strongly believe that education is a critical component of the conservation efforts of the endangered population of Andean cat. They proudly state:
The results on education are remarkable. Over 2000 children have attended workshops; 70 teachers, 200 rangers and 500 adults from different localities have gone to various trainings. There are at least 40 undergraduate students who have participated as volunteers for various projects and done 7 research theses. Additionally, 12 post-graduate research projects have been completed. The results of our research efforts have resulted in more than 30 scientific publications, 50 conference presentations and popular articles.
They are also using technological tools in their educational campaign to increase awareness on the Andean cat and provide learning opportunities for adults and children:
We developed a website (www.gatoandino.org) and a blog (http://alianza-gato-andino.blogspot.com). There, we offer graphic materials some of which may be downloaded for free. We also have free publications such as a Manual of Field Methodologies and Monitoring of the Andean cat, a Cat Identification Manual, an Andean Cat Manual for Educators, story books, cartoons, coloring books, brochures, newsletters and more.
AGA recognizes the support of their members and of several agencies and organizations that have provided assistance to their activities on behalf of the Andean Cat:
The activities and achievements of our organization in the four countries would not have been possible without the cooperation and combined efforts of all members of AGA. Also, members of the NGO Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN, USA) and The Darwin Initiative (DEFRA-UK) have trusted us and provided crucial support for the formation of AGA, and the development and implementation of our Action Plan.
The researchers are passionate in their efforts and motivation to protect the Andean cat:
The conservation of viable populations of Andean cat throughout its range of distribution contributes decisively to the preservation of biodiversity in the High-Andean and Andean-Patagonian regions, which is extremely rich in endemic species. For this reason we consider the Andean cat as a species symbol of these eco-regions.
It’s definitely encouraging to see that there are dedicated scientists focusing their work towards further knowledge of the biology of this cat and the implementation of effective actions that may not only educate the local people about their natural resources, but motivate authorities to contribute with policies that should make a difference in whether a species overcome the environmental obstacles that threaten their survival.
Khastor Region - Southern Bolivia - Habitat of the Andean Mountain Cat.
Khastor Region - Southern Bolivia - Habitat of the Andean Mountain Cat.
AGA©M.L. Villalba
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