The Soul of the Andes
To support the conservation of the Andean cat and its habitat in Argentina by favouring local community engagement
The Andean Cat Alliance (AGA) is the only organisation specifically aiming to ensure the survival of the Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita) throughout its entire range. This small felid lives almost exclusively in the high-altitude deserts of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina and is the most endangered feline species in the Americas. The primary threats to the Andean cat are habitat loss and hunting. It is also sometimes killed under the misconception of being dangerous. Its rareness and strong habitat association make this felid suitable as a focal species for the conservation of the ecosystems that it inhabits. However, no Andean cat has ever been kept in captivity and until 15 years ago, when AGA was created, almost no information was available on this species.
AGA members work collaboratively to design coordinated actions for the protection of this beautiful cat. The Soul of the Andes team is led by Mauro Lucherini (a carnivore biologist and member of both the IUCN SSC Canid and Cat specialist groups) and has been working in the remote regions of north-western Argentina at over 4000 m of elevation since 2005 to support the conservation of Andean cats and their habitat. This project aims to: (1) improve our understanding of the ecological requirements of the Andean cat and the threats to its survival; (2) increase local people's awareness of the ecological role and delicate conservation status of the Andean cat; and (3) favour local community engagement in wildlife conservation.
Until present, our project has produced a lot of specifically designed environmental education materials, delivered awareness activities to hundreds of children from local schools and conducted extensive research on population densities and other ecological aspects of the local Andean cat population, which peaked in the first radio telemetry-based research on this species. The continued efforts of this team have produced a great deal of information on the food and spatiotemporal niche of co-occurring Andean cat and Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo) populations that enabled us to co-author eight papers in peer-reviewed journals. Live trapping is currently ongoing and, also thanks to veterinarians from San Francisco and Denver zoos, we have succeeded to radio-tag three Andean cats and three Pampas cats.
In the years to come, we will simultaneously use camera trapping and radio tracking to identify the main factors affecting Andean cat occurrence and abundance in an area, and to provide data on habitat and space requirements. Additionally, we plan to increase local adult engagement in conservation and thus mitigate the pressure on small cat populations, and favour its conservation and that of the region's biodiversity. Specifically, we will establish economic programmes to create alternative income sources for local Argentinean residents (probably based on communitarian ecotourism), as a pilot programme for potential expansion to other AGA field sites. Initially, we will assess the viability of potential economic programmes. Then we will select one programme that is likely to have the greatest combined economic and conservation effects. In exchange for AGA's development and implementation of this programme, we expect that local residents will agree to avoid killing carnivores in the area and provide relevant information regarding Andean cat sightings and encounters.
WAZA Conservation Project 13004 is implemented by the Andean Cat Alliance, with support provided by San Francisco Zoo, Denver Zoo and Societá Zoologica La Torbiera. Other stakeholders involved in the project include the Wildlife Conservation Network, Argentine National Park Agency and Warmi native women association.
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