A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World
Featured Feline: Andean (Mountain) Cat
October 6, 2010Posted by on
The Americas are home to 12 wild cat species. Ten of these are small or medium sized, and one South American resident is considered one of the least known cats in the world.
The Andean Cat Leopardus jacobita is found only in the arid, sparsely vegetated elevations of the Andes Mountains in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Scientists have rarely observed these cats in the wild, but one exception is the photo on the right.
Dr. Mauro Lucherini of the Grupo de Ecología Comportamental de Mamíferos (GECM) in Argentina was clambering up a steep rocky slope during an Andean Cat research project. As he reached the top, he was astonished to see the object of his field study calmly looking up at him. Fortunately, he managed to snap a few photos before the cat casually walked away – a miraculous encounter with one of the rarest cats in the world.
Andean Cats are considered sacred according to indigenous traditions. Throughout much of their range, dried and stuffed specimens are kept by local people for use in harvest festivals. Hunting for such cultural practices may represent a significant threat to the species. In Argentina’s Catamarca province, 69% of people interviewed said they had hunted the small cats.
These small cats are found in areas above the timberline, primarily in the rockiest and steepest terrain. Their distribution coincides with the historic range of the mountain chinchilla, which was hunted to the brink of extinction for the fur trade a century ago. With the loss of the chinchillas, Andean Cats now hunt a similar species, the mountain vizcacha, as their main prey species.
Researchers have found that Andean Cats are much more dependent on the vizcachas than the Pampas Cat Leopardus colocolo, which take a wider variety of prey. Pampas Cats are also more abundant than Andean Cats throughout their range, and competition for vizcacha prey could negatively impact the Andean Cat.
Although the Pampas Cat looks quite different in other parts of its range, in the high Andes the two species look similar, to the extent that local people and scientists find it difficult to distinguish the two. This makes it extremely difficult to gather population data on the Andean Cat.
Hunting by local people who consider the Andean Cat a predator of their small domestic livestock has been frequently reported. These cats are also killed by dogs accompanying local shepherds, and hunted for food and for traditional medicine in central Peru. While it has full protection at national levels, law enforcement is problematic, and recently hunted specimens have been observed in the field and for sale in special markets.
Habitat alteration and destruction, mainly by extensive mining, resource extraction for fuel, and cattle grazing is increasingly affecting the Andean Cat in some parts of its range.
The study of the Andean cat is an urgent priority of the IUCN Cat Specialist group, and in 1998 the Andean Cat Alliance (ACA) was formed by teams of researchers from Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Researchers initiated field surveys to obtain basic information information on the distribution and conservation status of the Andean Cat. In 2004, they compiled a Conservation Action Plan for the Andean Cat.
Much is still to be learned about the rare and elusive Andean Cat, but the number of recent distribution records has greatly increased due to the efforts of the dedicated researchers at the Andean Cat Alliance.