TFlying over a barren cliff above the immense Chilean capital, Bernardo Segura reviews the images from the camera trap and lets out a cry of excitement as the images reveal a wobbly striped tail.
On the screen showing the ecologist’s last video capture is a Andean cat – the most endangered feline in the Americas. Looking a bit like a miniature snow leopard, the 9lb (4kg) male steps into the frame and begins spray-marking the shrubs at the base of the cliff, before making his way through the sharp rocks with his brown and gray tail striped at the top.
Segura is excited for many reasons. With a decreasing population of less than 1,400 mature Andean cats on the left, any observation is good. But this one announces a signal of hope in a different way for the species and the conservationists who fight against the extinction of the felines because it confirms a new population living as close as possible to humans – at the gates of Santiago, a city of eight million inhabitants.
“We have never encountered a population so close to a big city before,” says Segura. “It changes what we know about Andean cats and may offer solutions to protect this species and others in the wider mountain ecosystem, which is greatly under-studied. Finding one of the world’s most elusive animals just outside of Santiago vividly illustrates this. “
Until now, Andean cats were believed to only live in rocky terrain extremely far from cities. But after seeing a large number of cat favorite prey – rodents in the chinchilla family called mountain vizcachas – around the popular Parque Mahuida nature reserve on the outskirts of Santiago, Segura trusted a hunch and in February placed camera traps on a terraced precipice above the district of La Reina, about 2.5 km from Santiago. In July, he got his first images of an Andean cat. Since then, his camera has took about 40 more.
“So far, we have identified at least three adults who pass continuously, which suggests that this is the heart of their territory and not just a chance encounter,” says Segura, a volunteer for the organization at non-profit. Andean Cats Alliance (AGA), a coalition of conservationists who coordinate their efforts across Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia.
“For many of the cats, living so close to a huge city will open many doors to research,” he adds. “Field trips are usually complicated, remote and difficult to reach, but I can see this site from my own apartment with a long lens.
“We can come here every week with a short hike and get a better idea of their behavior and distribution. We have excellent internet coverage, so we can even perform real-time surveillance with remote cameras, which is practically impossible in isolated areas. “
Having easy access to a population will help the AGA tackle key issues in Andean cat conservation, including the collection of droppings, or faeces, for genetic analysis. It’s hard to find in their other known habitats – huge territories stretching over the highest Andean peaks and the northern part of the Patagonian steppe in Argentina. Previous research had identified five highly fragmented populations between the four countries, stretching north to south between Peru and Argentina.
“One of the main objectives is to determine whether these Andean cat populations are related or isolated,” explains AGA general coordinator Dr Rocío Palacios, feline specialist for the International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN).
“It’s important to know what we’re trying to keep,” she adds. “Because information on Andean cats has only been collected for 20 years, many fundamental aspects still need to be understood. A genetic understanding of the species can identify whether there are isolated populations, which often require enhanced protections. “
Some of the biggest threats to cats come from the extractive industries around the Andes, such as mining, quarrying, and hydraulic fracturing, which destroy their habitat and consume massive amounts of water, drying up animal sources. Segura posted a paper in May on another discovery of Andean cats, in Valparaíso, a mountainous coastal region north of the city of Santiago. In the document, he warns of the threat posed by plans for a large-scale surface mine called the Vizcachitas mining project, which is under development in the region.
Nicolás Lagos, AGA Coordinator for Chile, said: “The need for conservation of these newly discovered Andean cat populations around central Chile should be a priority. There are now three mega-mining projects threatening them, so if we don’t act quickly we will see their local extinction.
Another threat is hunting by farmers who indiscriminately eliminate all predators near livestock, while IUCN also classifies the climate crisis as a serious threat to Andean cats – Chile endures a ten-year drought, with annual rainfall deficits of 30 to 70% when modeled in relation to the last 1,000 years.
The Andean cat has also suffered from its low profile, even among experts, says Palacios. “The Andean cat has been a very little known species for a long time. Much of our work has focused on lobbying for them to be further reflected in the global conservation agenda.
“It was a species that was disappearing between our fingers,” she adds. “Even people who know a lot about cats didn’t know it, but if that feels like it is changing.”