In Search of the Cat of the Mountains

At an elevation of 5,000 meters, a small feline spends its days between snowcapped mountains and scrublands in an effort to avoid becoming extinct.

In the heights of the rural community of Punalaqueque lives one of the most difficult cats to see in the wild: the Andean cat. Credit: Camera trap/WCS.

By María Elena Carbajal
December 14, 2018

In Punalaqueque, the cold chills to the bone. Located in the Cuyocuyo District in southeast Peru near the border with Bolivia, the residents of this community make their living through agriculture (growing Andean tubers such as potato, oca, and mashua) or via the herding and sale of llamas and alpacas.

At 4,900 metres above sea level, the altitude hinders breathing and walking, but on an afternoon in May a group of biologists from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and the predator conservation NGO Pró-Carnívoros embarked on an expedition through these challenging landscapes to set up camera traps, with the sole purpose of photographing one of the slipperiest animals to see in the wild.

Cuyocuyo has asked to be designated by the Peruvian Government as a living cultural landscape for its ancestral terraces system and as an agrobiodiversity site for its diverse agriculture. Credit: Diego Pérez/WCS.

The scientists were looking for a cat. In between snowcapped mountains and scrublands lives one of the rarest and most difficult-to-spot felines.

The Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita) compares in size to its domestic cousin. Like most felines, it lives alone, and its stealth has made it almost impossible to photograph.

Nonetheless, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the Andean cat as “Endangered” (at high risk of extinction in the wild) on its well-known Red List.

Like most felines, the Andean Cat lives alone, and its stealth has made it almost impossible to photograph.

Reduced territory from the expansion of commercial livestock, the breeding of domestic animals, and the expansion of mining concessions are this cat’s main threats in southern Peru. Its population has also been reduced due to the previous use of its pelt to decorate costumes in regional celebrations.

Cuyocuyo boasts spectacular natural and cultural values and provides ideal conditions for the conservation of species like the Andean cat and ecosystems that sustain it.

To recognize the Andean cat you have to look at its tail and its spots, it has a much longer tail and with very thick rings, incomplete rings on the front legs, and lateral spots that do not form rosettes. Credit: Camera trap/WCS.

A gateway to the Amazon, this district awaits an answer on applications for two recognitions from the Peruvian Government: first, as a living cultural landscape for its ancestral terraces system, the largest in Southeast Peru; and second, as an agrobiodiversity site, with seven of the eight potatoes domesticated around the world grown on its terraces.

Cuyocuyo boasts spectacular natural and cultural values and provides ideal conditions for the conservation of species like the Andean cat.

The neighbors of Cuyocuyo knew the Andean cat lived near their houses. They had heard its call, but few had actually seen it. They were more likely to catch a glimpse of its less shy and more common relative, the Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo), found in parts of the coast and throughout the highlands.

The majority of families living in Cuyocuyo dedicate themselves to ancestral agriculture. Seven of the eight potatoes domesticated around the world grow on its terraces. Credit: Diego Pérez/WCS.

Willy Maldonado, a conservationist for WCS Perú and leader of the expedition, says that the most common signs of the Andean cat are skins and traces, such as footprints or burrows. Evidence of the cat has been found in the Allincapac snowcapped mountains in Puno and the Apolobamba mountains in Bolivia.

Three months after setting up the camera traps, the team returned. When sifting through the footage, the team found some potentially exciting evidence of the Andean cat. However, correctly identifying the cat was key.

According to Daniel Cossios, a Peruvian biologist specializing in zoology and mammal monitoring, “the Pampas cat has a relatively short tail with thin rings, dark complete rings on the front legs, and spots on its sides which are not too close to one another.” All of the research, preparation, and field work finally paid off when the photos provided confirmation.

The sighting of this rare cat in Cuyocuyo demonstrates why conservation must span beyond political and geographic boundaries.

The excited team found images of the Andean cat playing with the camera in the middle of the mountains. The sighting in Cuyocuyo demonstrates why conservation must span beyond political and geographic boundaries. It will be important to consider a bi-national conservation strategy between Peru and Bolivia for the effective protection of this species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the Andean cat as “Endangered” (at high risk of extinction in the wild) on its well-known Red List. Credit: Camera trap/WCS.

The conservation of this shy animal is critical. As one of the main predators in these high elevations, it regulates rodent populations. But its natural habitat faces danger. To address these threats, WCS aims to conserve Andean cat habitats and work in collaboration with the rural communities.

If we do not act soon, it may become impossible to see the Andean cat in the wild again — not even through a photograph.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — 
María Elena Carbajal is a journalist and communications coordinator at WCS Peru.