A rarely observed species of feline was recently photographed in the mountains of northern Chile. The Andean mountain cat, or Leopardus jacobita, is one of the rarest felines in South America and the world. Sightings, and especially photographs, have been incredibly uncommon. Before 1998 the only evidence of its existence was two photographs. Just a few days ago, several photos of a healthy mother and her offspring were taken.
The sighting was the result of camera traps placed in the Los Flamencos National Reserve, which excited experts because it had never been observed there before. This suggests that the feline’s habitat is more widespread than previously thought, and possibly growing.
The Andean cat stands about 14 inches tall and is roughly 23 to 33 inches long, which is about fifty percent taller and much longer than the traditional house cat. Hardly anything is known about the behavior of the Andean cat, as its habitat is extremely remote and difficult to survey. Experts believe they live exclusively in the Andes Mountains in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. They survive in rocky and steep terrain at elevations of 5,900 to 13,000 feet, where the only precipitation is snow. They are normally a solitary species, but can sometimes be found in pairs or with cubs during mating season and shortly after.
The Andean cat was officially moved from the Vulnerable to Endangered list in 2002, and current population estimates for the species are thought to be under 2,500. It is one of the five most endangered cats worldwide. The population has slowly been in decline in recent decades, though the cause for the dwindling numbers is unknown.
Scientists are not sure if the animal’s rarity is due to human interaction or natural causes. The indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples of the Andes consider the cat a sacred animal, and have been observed hunting and using the pelts for ceremonial purposes, though this most often involves the very similar and more abundant Pampas cat. The human population in the feline’s habitat has actually decreased over the last 2,000 years, casting some doubt on humans being the reason for the population decline.
One hypothesis is that the rarity of the Andean cat is due to the decline of their favored prey, the long-tailed chinchilla. While it doesn’t make up their entire diet, the long-tailed chinchilla historically has been the primary staple. In the Andes the chinchilla has been driven to near extinction in recent years due to people hunting them for their fur.
Whatever the reason for the decline of the Andean cat, the recent sighting has given hope to conservationists. Protected in several countries and aided by multiple conservation organizations like the Andean Cat Alliance, this sighting, in a new area, seems to show that their efforts are working.