Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Small wild cats: in danger in Asia, safer in South America

Spirit of High Andes Yields More Feline Secrets
James Sanderson, CI Field Researcher

La Paz, Bolivia (July 26, 2006): With exquisite timing, the exciting news reached me here during a recent conference of Alianza Gato Andino (AGA), a coalition of groups dedicated to conservation of the Andean mountain cat (Oreailurus jacobita), one of the rarest and most elusive animals on Earth. The international model and movie star Isabella Rossellini, daughter of screen legend Ingrid Bergmann, had dedicated $50,000 to the AGA, half of the $100,000 Disney Wildlife Conservation Award she had received for her tireless efforts to protect wildlife. To all of us at the AGA conference, Isabella's love of Andean mountain cats came as no surprise. But eight years ago, when I first began the arduous task of actually finding and capturing this ephemeral feline, the little gray gato with the big bushy tail wasn't even on the conservation landscape.

In 1997, I had traveled to Chile in search of another shy and largely unknown cat, the tiny guigna (Oncifelis guigna) that had been photographed only once and had never been captured or studied alive by scientists. Defying the odds – and the skeptics – I caught and radio collared half a dozen within two weeks, earning me a reputation as an authority on the guigna, and enough grant money to go look for its Andean mountain cousin.

I headed to northern Chile, where the last known Andean mountain cat had been seen and photographed by a tourist some years before. I carried the usual grim warnings from colleagues and friends of altitude sickness, pulmonary thrombosis, frequent lightening strikes, and bitter cold nights. Living without fuel or power in the vast, treeless, snow-capped mountains and immense empty valleys isn't much fun. And keeping warm is little more than a vain hope.

Sharing a tiny house with the only other human in these parts, a park guard, I settled into a routine of scouting the area for signs of the cat. One day around noon, he summoned me with a single word: gato! I went outside, and just below a white wooden cross that held shortwave radio wires was unmistakably an Andean mountain cat. I rushed inside, grabbed my binoculars and camera, and scrambled up the rocks.

Much to my surprise, the cat – a male and completely unafraid – met me halfway. My heart was pounding, but not from running up a rock pile at close to 14,000 feet. I was now within a few feet of one of the world's rarest and most beautiful cats, the spirit of the Andes – a real, living gato Andino.

Then came a magic moment that most scientists dream about but few ever experience. I knelt on one knee, leveled my camera, whistled the alarm call of the cat's favorite rodent prey, and snapped a photo of the cat that showed up two years later in the February 2000 issue of National Geographic. Though I wasn't able to catch the cat, we met again on two other occasions. These brief encounters were simultaneously the highest highs and the lowest lows a conservation biologist can experience.

That the cat showed no fear of me was disturbing. Its use as a talisman of good luck – when dead and dried out – by the native Amerindians of the high Andes was a conservationist's dilemma. How do we save a cat that shows no fear of people and whose use as a good luck charm when dead (and it must be killed or otherwise it is a bad luck omen) dates far into antiquity.

Ultimately, good PR was all the Andean mountain cat really needed. My photograph in National Geographic caught the fancy of several interested conservationists, including retired CISCO Systems executive Christine Hemrick and the Wildlife Conservation Network, which eventually led to the creation of the AGA alliance to protect the cat. Fully six years after I photographed my first Andean mountain cat, a broad-based conservation effort was under way.

Working with AGA conservationists over the past two years, I've had the opportunity to capture and radio-collar the animals in Bolivia; others have been photographed and studied elsewhere in Chile and in Argentina, including a female with a cub. Only in Peru do we lack photographs of living cats.

We now have a better understanding of the geographic range of the most threatened cat in the western hemisphere. AGA is educating children and adults on the plight of the animal and why it is wrong to kill it out of superstition. Day by day, the battle to conserve Andean mountain cats in their native habitat is moving slowly in our favor.

The gato Andino appears to be safe, but in Asia, other small cats are slipping through the cracks. The bay cat (Catopuma badia) found only in Borneo, is the most threatened. The flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) whose swampy lowland habitat is rapidly being converted into oil palm plantations, is the most aquatic and eats fish and frogs. The marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata) is highly arboreal, and the Chinese mountain cat (Felis bieti) is another of these high-elevation specialists that I have unsuccessfully searched for in the past three years. But here's a heads-up for these little feline fugitives from conservation: I'm looking, and I'll find you!


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