A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World
By Mauro Lucherini, GECM, Universidad Nacional del Sur, Argentina
Our team has been working to contribute to the conservation of the endangered Andean cat Leopardus jacobita since 1998, as part of the efforts of a cross-border initiative called Andean cat Alliance (www.gatoandino.org) that aims to preserve this felid and its habitat throughout its entire distribution range. In the last few years, our project has concentrated its efforts in a remote area of almost pristine habitat in the high Andes of northwestern Argentina (Vilama, Jujuy province). Here we carried out interviews with local people to analyze human/cat conflicts, we worked with hundreds of children from rural schools, and we were successful at collecting a number of camera trapping photographs sufficient to prove that the population density of this cat is low and that it is not simply shy, but truly rare.
And yet, after years of field work we were still struggling to understand the reasons for this cat’s rarity.
To answer this question, a couple of years ago our team decided to accept the greatest challenge: live trapping and collaring a sample of individuals of the two small cats living together in the area (Andean cat and Pampas cat Leopardus colocolo) and track their movements. Our team started live trapping in September 2011, full of expectations, but 46 days later, when summer thunder storms forced us to stop fieldwork, we had only been able to catch a young Pampas cat, too small to wear a collar.
By last May, when we rebuilt our field camp, located at 4200 m elevation and a distance of two hours walk from the closest village, our optimism had partially faded away. When the trap alarms went off five hours after activating the traps, we thought it was a false trigger. To our total surprise, what we found was an adult male Andean cat!
This was only the second specimen of this species to be live trapped and radiocollared ever! Even more unexpectedly, a week later a Pampas cat was also captured, in the same exact spot as the Andean cat.
Our study site enjoys the typical environmental conditions of the southern high Andes: extreme daily temperature variations (from 25 to -15o C), frequent strong winds, severe dryness, and, of course, lack of oxygen in the air. In spite of this challenging habitat and climate, with the support of a wildlife vet from San Francisco Zoo (A. Mutlow) we were successful at collaring and releasing both cats, when fully recovered, at the trapping site.
We used collars with a new technology that enables on-board storage of positions obtained through a GPS receiver. By now, if the equipment had worked properly, our team would have been able to finally learn a lot more from the mysterious cats living in the wilderness of the High Andes. Unfortunately, the self release mechanisms of both GPS collars failed a couple of weeks after each capture and we were left with about 30 locations for each cat. Nevertheless, we are not giving up and are now looking for additional funding to buy new collars and tag a few more of these mysterious cats.
To help the scientists learn what these cats need to survive, you can make a donation of any amount to this project. 100% of funds go directly to the cats!