Andean Mountain Cat, Leopardus jacobita
The Andean mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita) is a rarely seen wild cat that can be found in Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. This cat shares a range with the Pampas cat, and it is thought to be thinly spread, with low genetic diversity. It prefers a habitat in montane forests with plenty of water, at elevations between 11,500 and 15,700 feet.
The Andean mountain cat is small, reaching an average body length between twenty-two and twenty-five inches, with a tail length of up to nineteen inches. It weighs around twelve pounds, and males are typically larger than females. Its fur is thick and greyish silver in color, with darker stripes and spots appearing on the underbelly. The tail and legs hold six to nine black rings. Young Andean mountain cats bear darker markings, making it difficult to distinguish from the Pampas cats that share its range. There are many differences between these two species, and many similarities, so it can be difficult to distinguish both adult and young individuals, making conservation assessments challenging to conduct.
It is thought that the breeding season for the Andean mountain cat occurs between the months of July and August. This estimate was derived from local reports and from observations of pairs with litters. Litters have also been seen in the months of April through October, leading some experts to think that the breeding season may last longer. Litters are typically born in spring or summer, and contain one or two kittens.
Because the Andean mountain cat shares a range with the Pampas cat, which is similar in size, it must compete for food. Both of these species’ diets consist mainly of mountain viscacia, and both hunt in the same area in the same intervals. Because the Pampas cat is more abundant, the Andean mountain cat must work harder to hunt for food, although it does hunt other species in some areas of its range.
Before 1998, the only proof of the Andean mountain cat’s existence was two photographs. Jim Sanderson began searching for this elusive cat in 1998, producing one photo in the same year. In 2004, he collaborated with a research team from Bolivia, successfully placing a radio collar-tracking device on one individual. Unfortunately, it was found dead in 2005, most likely from a poachers trap. Along with many co-workers that comprise the Andean Cat Alliance and the Small Cat Conservation Alliance, Sanderson is still involved in conserving this species. Agreements were made with a non-profit Bolivian group, called Fundación Biodiversitas, and CONAF, a government agency that manages protected areas. This agreement allowed the SCCA to restore a building that will become the Andean Cat Conservation and Monitoring Center, located in Chile.
The Andean mountain cat is highly threatened by habitat loss, with much of its viable habitat occurring in fragmented patches, due to natural valleys and human populations. Habitat loss can also be caused by water extraction, mining, and changes in weather patterns. Other threats include hunting, hybridization, and the habitat destruction and hunting of the animals the cat preys upon. Conservation efforts include research, public education, habitat conservation, and legal actions. Because the Andean mountain cat occurs throughout four countries, each country has enacted laws protecting it. Some of these prevent hunting, capture, and trade of live or dead animals, including all felids in Chile. The Andean mountain cat occurs in thirty-six protected areas across its range, but eleven of these have not been assessed. The Andean mountain cat currently appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Endangered.”
Image Caption: Andean Cat (Leopardus jacobita). Credit: Jim Sanderson/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)