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Endangered Andean Cats, Hiding Out in South America

Close your eyes and picture what you believe to be an endangered wild cat. What do you see? Perhaps a snow leopard from Nepal? Maybe a Cheetah from Namibia or a Bengal Tiger? Worthy animals all. But I’ll bet that you aren’t visualizing the Andean Cat and yet’s it is believed to be the most threatened wild cat in the Americas. This small cat is about the size of a typical house cat and just as fluffy. But its low population and elusive nature have prevented it from becoming the viral video star of your Facebook feed.

Andean Cat- Andean Cat Alliance
The Andean cat’s fluffy coat protects it from the extreme temperatures in the high Andes. Photo courtesy of Andean Cat Alliance

 Why are the Andean Cats Endangered?

The Andean Mountain Cats live in the upper reaches of the Andean Mountains. Its home range is huge, covering the high elevations from central Peru, through Bolivia, straddling eastern Chile and stretching into the Northern Patagonia region of Argentina. With all of that land, you would think that there would be a large population. But the cat’s habitat includes extreme temperatures, scarce vegetation and little water. This combines to create a fragile and fragmented habitat.

There are also human factors that can stress the cat’s habitat. Land uses like the extraction of water for mining contributes to habitat loss. And then a lack of land management plans, oil & gas extraction and aggressive farming techniques contribute to the degradation of the habitat that remains. Hunting of the cat’s traditional prey depletes their calorie base. And human/cat conflict can contribute to retaliatory hunting of the cats.

Andean Cat Rocky Landscape
Here is the dry, rocky landscape of the cats. Photo courtesy of Jim Sanderson of the Small Cat Alliance

About Rocio Palacios and the Andean Cat Alliance

The Andean Cat Alliance

So there is stress on the cat’s habitat. Add to that, the challenge of trying to execute a conservation program across four countries, with a fragmented human population, in challenging terrain, and with mixed land use. Enter Rocio Palacios and the Andean Cat Alliance (AGA). The Andean Cat Alliance was founded in 1999 and tasked with the express purpose of developing coordinated efforts for the conservation of the cats.

Their vision seeks the long-term protection of the Andean Cat. This includes both the cat’s habitat as well as their exhistance in harmony with the human populations. AGA has program representatives from all four countries and they work in a cooperative fashion to execute pan-regional programs and policies. Rocio Palacios is an AGA team member representing Argentina.

Rocio Palacios
Photo courtesy of S. Cañadell, AGA Argentina

About Rocio Palacios and Her Love of Cats

Rocio has always loved cats. She had her first cat at aged six which she named “Lazy” after a local politician. She was rescuing cats at age 9, hiding them in her bedroom at age 12 and then establishing her own conservation NGOs by age 24. The Wildlife Conservation Society hired her to to work on carnivore studies in the Andes. She soon found herself in the beautiful San Guillermo National Park which is a four hour drive north of Mendoza Argentina. While there, as she gazed across a seventy mile expanse of wilderness, she had an epiphany. That connection with nature put her into balance and she realized that it was her calling to continue with conservation work.

Conservation is a glamorous profession. For Rocio, it meant that she used her rock climbing experience to scramble around the Andes looking for and collecting cat scat. The poop patrol, and her conversations with local park rangers paid off when she was able to establish the presence of the Andean Cat in the northern Patagonia. This location is further south, and at a lower elevation than previously identified Andean Cat habitat. This indicated the need to bring the Andean Cat conservation programs into Argentina.

Andean Cats Kids Conservation Education
Kids conservation education program. Photo courtesy of Andean Cat Alliance

The Andean Cat Alliance’s Programs

Rocio is very proud of the Andean Cat Alliance. Yes, they are focused on the Andean Cat but the emphasis is on the alliance. The four countries are allied with one another in their goal to save the cats. As a team, they have developed a democratic decision making process and execute pan-regional solutions. And they have also allied with the local communities and the park rangers as key partners in conservation.

Their research programs have an ongoing goal to collect data on the population size and distribution of the cats. Camera traps are used to capture the daily activity of the cats. In fact, since the cats are so elusive, the camera traps are often the only way to capture data on them. Well, that and the poop collection. All of the cat pictures in this post are from camera traps, which explains their grainy and un-posed presentation.

The AGA education programs engage with local communities in an information exchange regarding the presence of the cats and the locals’ perceptions and beliefs regarding their local carnivore population. AGA’s kids program has targeted 500 students in remote populations with the goal of instilling a sense of pride in the Andean Cat as a special flagship species of the Andes. AGA utilizes park rangers, university students and other volunteers as their eyes and ears on the ground.

Malargue Argentina
Andean Cat terrain around Malargue. Photo courtesy of Rocio Palacios

Visiting Rocio’s Home Range

Unlike going to Namibia to see the Cheetahs or to Zimbabwe to see the Wild African Dogs, going to Argentina to see the Andean Cats can be a very Quixotic quest indeed. They are rare and elusive. Rocio worked in the cat’s habitat for YEARS before seeing a live cat. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. The Andes offer a vast, spare landscape that is worth a visit for anyone who loves hiking and a whole lot of sky.

If you are going to be in the Mendoza region of Argentina (and why wouldn’t you…they have wine there), Rocio suggests driving a few hours south. It’s Andean Cat country and you can visit the limestone caves of Caverna de las Brujas. Stay in the small city of Malargue and then the next day visit the Laguna de Llancanelo. The Laguna has flamingos and the area is populated with guanacos, a wild cousin of the llama. Check out these sites for more information on the region:

Mendoza Province Argentina
Mendoza Province. Photo courtesy of Rocio Palacios

Here’s How You Can Support AGA

The Andean Cat flies under the radar. It just doesn’t get the adoration of species like the Snow Leopard. And there aren’t any cute viral cat videos to help promote it either. So you’ll just need to take my word that this program is worthy of your support. Here are a few ways that you can help:

  • Any donation to AGA will provide practical program support. Here are some specific needs that they have:
    • $200 will purchase a camera trap
    • $400 will provide staff salary
    • $1,000 will fund community programs
  • Become a fan and follow them on Facebook or via Wildlife Conservation Network on Twitter
  • Get more information by visiting the AGA website and by watching their conservation talk from the Wildlife Conservation Expo (below)

Your Parting Shot

Andean Cat mother and kitten
What’s cuter than an Andean Cat mother and her kitten? Adorbs! Photo courtesy of Andean Cat Alliance

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In the stark landscape of the Andes lives the little known, endangered Andean Cat. Learn more about the cat and it's remarkable habitat.

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Elise Xavier

Monday 2nd of January 2017

I don't think anything can be cuter than these Andean cats.. Hell the mother looks as cute as her kitten - maybe even cuter!

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