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 worlds foremost experts on small wild cats was in Chile studying guignas (Oncifelis guigna
), a less-rare South American feline he documented in the wild using camera traps that are triggered automatically by a motion sensor.
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 Himalayas
. But the cats have long been known to indigenous Andean peoples. One ancient petroglyph clearly depicts the region's three cat species
: the puma (Puma concolor
), the pampas cat (Oncifelis colocolo
), and the Andean mountain cat.
When Sanderson headed back to the Andes
in 1998, the only hard evidence anyone had of the elusive cat were two photographs. One taken near Chile's northern border with Peru showed a distinctive orange pole in the background. Because these animals are suspected to have small home ranges, Sanderson reasoned that if he could locate the same pole, it was likely he would also find his quarry.
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 Sechura Desert, where temperatures fall below freezing every night and snow is always a threat, even in summer. Worse, this swath of the Andes was becoming drier than usual due to shifts in the global climate.
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 Arica, Chile, drafting a conservation action strategy to protect the animal. A week later, Sanderson and two colleagues explored an escarpment near the Bolivian town of Khastor, where a local led them to a small grotto.
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.
As in Chile, rural Bolivians believe that if someone comes upon a mountain cat, they must kill it immediately for its spiritually powerful skin or bad luck will follow. This superstition is so pervasive in the Andes that even park guards in legally protected areas will try to kill mountain cats something fairly easy to do because the animals show no fear of people.
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 Borneo (Prionailurus planiceps
), these small but powerful top predators are crucial indicators of an ecosystem's health. Through CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science
(CABS), Sanderson and partners including the World Conservation Union's Cat Specialist Group, created the Small Cat Conservation Alliance in 2002, building a global campaign to protect small cats through science, local alliances, and education.
"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?"