Endangered Cat is Still On The Prowl
John Tidwell, Staff Writer
It was the kind of moment most scientists can only dream of: to come upon a creature of legend, undocumented for years, sitting only a few feet away. For Conservation International (CI) ecologist Jim Sanderson it was also a scientific triumph, proof at long last that the Endangered Andean mountain cat (Oreailurus jacobita) — one of the rarest and least studied felines in the Americas — still roamed the windswept peaks at the nexus of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.
As sometimes happens in scientific discoveries, the first documented sighting of the Andean mountain cat in 30 years occurred through a process of luck and intuition. In 1997 Sanderson — one of the world’s foremost experts on small wild cats — was in
The Andean mountain cat was a special challenge. Barely known to science, these cold-weather felines were reported at altitudes of more than 14,000 feet above sea level, as high as the famed snow leopards (Uncia uncial) of the
When Sanderson headed back to the
At the rustic headquarters of Salar de Surire National Park, he settled into a spare trailer nicknamed "The Ice Box" perched on a windswept hillside and resumed the search. Looking out of the rear window, Sanderson knew he was in the right place: there was the orange pole from the photograph!
While the pole was an encouraging sign, finding the cat on these rocky slopes was a daunting challenge. The area lies at the southern tip of the arid, treeless
For six long weeks, Sanderson took survey data and set camera traps, hoping to find some trace of the mysterious feline. Then one morning he walked out of his hut, and there, perched only a few hundred feet away on some rocks, was the Andean mountain cat, watching him with large yellowish eyes. For Sanderson it was a moment of supreme vindication, proving that this small grayish-brown animal wasn't extinct.
Sanderson took many photographs and tried unsuccessfully to catch the animal and fit a radio-collar. And for five long years, Sanderson continued searching. Then a colleague sent word that she had seen Andean mountain cats living high in the mountains of southern Bolivia, more than 15,000 feet up — one of the loftiest ranges of any cat. In April 2004 Sanderson, a multinational scientific team, and the Wildlife Conservation Network formed the Alianza Gato Andino, or Andean Cat Alliance (AGA), in
Peering over the stony ledge while a companion gripped his shirt, Sanderson had his second encounter with an Andean mountain cat, and this time he managed to capture it. Slipping a radio-collar on the 11-pound female, he noted how thin she was beneath a dense coat of fur despite a regular diet of small rodents — emblematic of how fragile this species is despite its formidable appearance.
While many native Andeans continue to adhere to these beliefs, those who worked with the cat alliance scientists came to cherish this beautiful, endemic predator. With help from Sanderson, these Chileans are now trying to learn where these cats are living, and how to protect them. The animals face a double threat: danger from encroaching humans and a shrinking habitat.
It's a plight shared by most of the 36 species of wild cats, many no bigger than housecats. From Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) to the semi-aquatic flat-headed cat of
"Any of these small cat species could go extinct under our very noses and we would never know it until much later," says Sanderson sadly. "There is so much we need to learn about their biology and behavior — data we can use to understand how to breed them. The question is: Can we do it before these cats are gone?"
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 150 big cats
12802 Easy Street
813.920.4130 fax 885.4457 cell 493.4564
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