Andean Mountain Cat : ‘Mini snow leopard’

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Andean Mountain Cat

Although recent researches are improving the knowledge base about the Andean mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita), it is still amongst the least known of the Felids. This is the reason that it is often mistaken for the smaller and similar looking little-known pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo). External characteristics of Leopardus colocolo found outside the Andean range are quite different, but those occurring in the Andes have awfully similar appearance to the Andean cat, consequently a diagnostic key was developed to differentiate between the two species.

This is one of about two dozen small wildcat species that are found around the world, but it is the only felid, in addition to the Bay Cat, for which no subspecies have been classically described.

 Small cat analog of the snow leopard

One of the most beautiful of all wild cats, it is found at the altitude of 3,500–4,800 m (11,500–15,700 ft)—well above the tree line where water is available. Though it is about the size of a domestic cat, it’s appearance makes it the small cat analog of the snow leopard. Like the snow leopard, Andean cat’s fur is also quite thick, plush, soft and fine, generally silvery-grey in colour and up to 5 cm long on the back. While the underside is pale with numerous dark spots and stripes, prominent dark grey bars run across the chest and legs. It looks larger due to the long tail and thick fur. Brown-yellowish marks that are distributed as vertical lines on both sides of the body give the impression of unbroken stripes.

The cat’s tail is thick and long, about 70 per cent of the body length, blunt without tapering. Since the hairs on the underside of the tail are as long and as thick as the upper side, it looks perfectly round. Tail also has six to nine dark wide rings and it’s tip is black. It is believed that the tail is most likely used for warmth, wrapping it around the cat’s body while it sleeps and tucking its nose inside.

Cat’s ears are large, rounded whose back has dark grey colour and the nose is black. Forelimbs have dark narrow stripes that do not form complete rings. Noticeable dark lines run along the sides of the eyes. Fewer than 2500 individuals are thought to exist in the wild.

Medium-sized Andean Cat’s body ranges from 55 to 65 cm in length, tail is 40 to 49 cm long, shoulder-height is approximately 36 cm and body weighs about 5.5 kilos. In the case of body weight only two records are available—one is of a sub adult animal from Peru that weighed 4 kilos and the other was an adult female that weighed 4.5 kilos.

Though there is a difference between the coloration in mature and juvenile cats, there is no color variation between males and females. Juveniles have darker blotches, especially on the sides of the body. These markings are smaller in size but more numerous, which often confuses and causes mistaken identification of the Andean Cat with the pampas cat.

Least-known & rarest of all felines

Found on the high Andes and lower slopes of Peru, Chile, northern Argentina and Bolivia, it is one of the least-known and rarest of all felines. Various surveys have confirmed that the cat is a rare species, found at lower densities in the same high-altitude environment as its close cousin, the Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocolo).

Across its range, it has a very low level of genetic diversity, which suggests a small historic population size. An Andean Cat and kitten were spotted in a reserve in Argentina’s San Juan province in 2002, which enlarged the cat’s known distribution south by 500 km. After two years more evidence of their existence were found in the foothills and steppe on the eastern side of the Andes Mountains. These new records are the lowest ever reported, and extend their distribution to scrub habitat within the Patagonian steppe. Population found on the foothills is irregularly distributed and is believed to match with that of their chief prey species, mountain viscachas (Lagidium spp), a species of rodent.

The cat is very specialized in its habitat requirements and prefers high-elevation montane environment fragmented by deep valleys. Having been found in the rocky arid and semi arid zones above the tree line, up to 4,000 meters, its distribution is likely to be further localized by the patchy nature of colonies of its favourite food—the viscachas.

While the cat’s main food is mountain viscacha, it is also likely that mountain chinchillas, another rodent and relative of viscachas, were formerly the chief prey of this cat before their populations severely declined due to hunting for the fur trade a century ago. Since the Andean mountain cats live in the high mountains, valleys inhabited by humans act as barriers and cause population fragmentation, which means that even low levels of poaching could bring about devastating effect on the cat’s number.

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Beliefs and traditions

Though both Andean and pampas cats are considered sacred in indigenous Aymara and Quechua traditions, still they are often killed throughout much of their range due to beliefs and traditions. After killing, their dried and stuffed specimens are kept by local people for use in harvest festivals. Hunting of these cats for such cultural practices may represent a major threat to the species. In Argentina’s Catamarca province, 69 per cent of the people interviewed admitted that they had hunted small cats.

Habitat destruction and alteration, generally by widespread mining, resource extraction for fuel, and cattle grazing is more and more affecting the cat’s population in parts of its range. In addition to this, locals who consider the Andean Cat as a predator of their small domestic livestock frequently kill them particularly in some regions of Peru, Argentina and Chile. Dogs accompanying local shepherds also kill them. Both these cats (Andean and pampas) are also killed for food and for traditional medicine in central Peru.

The total population size estimated is below 2,500 mature individuals and that too with a declining trend due to loss of habitat and prey base, persecution and hunting for traditional ceremonies. No sub-population having an effective population size larger than 250 mature individuals.

Competition with other predators

Andes Mountain range is home of six different species of predators, of which three— puma, Andean cat and the pampas cat—are felids. While puma is a large predator, other two are medium-sized and are very much alike in appearance and the food habits. They not only hunt within the same territory, but also hunt frequently during the same periods, depend on the same prey, the mountain viscachas (Lagidium viscacia), which constitute about 94 per cent of the Andean cat’s diet while the Pampas cat’s diet includes about 75 per cent of these rodents, as they take a wider variety of prey. This makes finding food more difficult for both of them and creates a race for survival.

During a study, both the cats were seen most commonly during moonless nights; the second most sightings were during full moons.

Besides the above facts not much is known about the ecology and behaviour of the Andean cat. Barring few studies most of the reported sightings have been during daytime. It has been observed that the activity pattern of this cat is likely related to feeding habits of its main prey species.

Andean cat is believed to be a solitary species, but may be seen in pairs or with cubs during mating season and after birth. According to the residents’ observations in Bolivia they usually mate between July and August, but this period may extend up to November or December. A litter will usually consists of one or two offspring. Nothing more is known about their reproduction.

Map showing distribution of Andean Mountain Cat (CC BY SA 3.0) Attribution : Oona Räisänen and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)

Differences between Andean and pampas cats

Although the pampas cat looks quite different in other parts of its range, in the high Andes it looks quite similar to Andean cat. The similarity between the two is so much that the locals and even scientists find it difficult to distinguish the two. This causes confusion in identifying these felids and make correct estimations of populations problematic. This becomes all the more difficult when attempts are made to obtain correct information from sightings by individuals that have seen one of these cats but are not aware to look for identifiable features to differentiate between the two.

Andean cats have been rarely observed in the wild by scientists. However, the number of recent distribution records has increased many folds due to the hard work put in by the Andean Cat Alliance, a group of specialist researchers formed in 1999.  There are no known Andean cats in captivity and few museum specimens.

Tail — In Andean cat tail is two-third of the body length. It is thick and blunt with 6 to 9 wide rings. In pampas cat it is about half of the body length, thin and tapered with 9 narrow rings.

Tail rings — In Andean cats maximum width is 60mm, while in pampas cats it is 20mm.

Facial features— Andean cats have characteristic lines on sides of their eyes and the ear-tips are rounded. If lines are present in the pampas cats they are brown and less dramatic. Most members of this species have triangular-tipped ears.

Nose— Andean cats have very dark or black nose, while pampas cats have light-colored and generally pink noses.

Overall color— Andean cats generally have silvery-gray color, while pampas cats are cream, red, rust and black in color.

Coat pattern— Andean cats have one consistent pattern, while pampas cats have three different patterns with different variations.

Ear color— Andean cats have uniform coloration of the base color, while the pampas cats have patterned colored ears.

Front paws— In Andean cats rings are not complete and stripes appear spot-like, while in pampas cats there are two or more well-defined, complete black rings.

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Laws and legislation

There are four South American countries where Andean cat is found and these countries have made individual laws to protect the cat.

In Peru the cat is considered a threatened species and its hunting, commerce and possession (live or dead animals or its parts) is prohibited by law since 1999.

In Bolivia, along with other wild species of fauna and flora, the Andean Cat is protected by the Supreme Decree, promulgated in 1990, which establishes a general and undefined ban on hunting, capture, storing and/or conditioning of wild animals and their derivative products.

In Argentina the cat is protected by National Law 22421 of wildlife conservation and its Statutory Decree and also by Resolution of the Secretary of Agriculture. It prohibits hunting and/or trade of the Andean cat

In Chile, all felid species are fully protected since 1972 by Law. The illegal hunting of felines in Chile is penalized with fines up to 6,000 US dollars and/or imprisonment up to 3 years.

Conservation

As the status of Andean cat has been moved from Vulnerable to Endangered in 2002 on the IUCN Red List it indicates that the cat is being pushed towards extinction. The biggest hindrance in the cat’s conservation is the spread of its habitat across four countries. To overcome this problem biologists of different countries are trying to collaborate to save the species. The second major problem is paucity of funds. For the conservation of smaller wild felids like the Andean mountain cat budgets are available in thousands, while in the case of their larger cousins millions of dollars are being dedicated to save them.

Threats and efforts to save the cat

1.     Habitat loss — to overcome this problem protected areas are being created and consolidation or improvement of existing ones is being undertaken; implementation of existing legislation; obeying with government and the industry sector; participation of local communities on land use decisions and conservation; studies and research on desertification processes affecting the Andean cat. Habitat loss due to extensive mining, resource extraction for fuel and cattle grazing are the main threats to the cat

2.   Habitat degradation — implementation of existing laws; lobbying with local communities, governments and industries to regulate tourist activities; working with communities to improve livestock management; research and studies on the effects of habitat degradation on Andean Cat; implementation of water management plans when existing.

3.   Hunting: Palliative/Opportunistic— to overcome this, efforts are being taken to mitigate the conflict between man and animal by educating the community and implementing the laws already in existence. Locals are being educated to change their perception of the species.

Hunting by locals who consider Andean cat a predator of their livestock has been frequently reported. They are killed for food and traditional medicines in central Peru. Dogs of shepherds also kill them. While the cats are fully protected at national level, law enforcement is very difficult. Killed specimens of cats have been observed in the field and for sale in special markets.

4.   Hunting for tradition — Andean cats are hunted for the religious use of their skins or taxidermy. To stop this, community education program is being undertaken and traditional knowledge is being revived.

These cats are considered sacred in indigenous culture. In much of their range, dried and stuffed specimens are kept by locals for use in the harvest festivals, which is a significant threat to the existence of the species. In Argentina’s Catamarca province alone, 69 per cent of the people interviewed admitted that they had hunted this cat.

5.    Reduction of prey—it is due to hunting and presence of domestic dogs that the number of prey, on which these smaller cats subsists, is depleting. Interventions undertaken by conservation groups include community education, enforcement of laws and research on predator-prey dynamics.

6.   Diseases— domestic dogs and cats act as vectors and infect wild cats. Research is being done to ascertain the true extent of this threat.

7.    Hybridization— Researches are underway to determine the extent of threat of hybridization by the sympatric and phylogenetically related species (L. colocolo).

Research

Before 1998, there were only two photographs of Andean Mountain Cat, which were the sole evidence of its existence. After seeing those pictures Jim Sanderson started searching for the cat and sighted and photographed one in Chile in 1998 near Chile’s northern border with Peru. He joined a Bolivian research team in 2004 and helped in putting radio-collar on an Andean cat in Bolivia. Unfortunately the cat was found dead in April 2005, perhaps after being caught in poacher’s trap. Sanderson is still heavily involved with the Andean cat.

Lilian Villalba of the Andean Cat Alliance has conducted a major research program, which included radio-telemetry studies, from 2001 to 2006 in the Khastor region of southern Bolivia. Conservation efforts are also being made by the Feline Conservation Federation to preserve this species.

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