The leadership of the Andean Cat Alliance reflects its character as a multinational coalition dedicated to the conservation of the feline throughout its four-country range. Lilián Villalba, a biologist from Bolivia, serves as General Coordinator. Each country has a Representative, and there are Working Group Coordinators for each program area.
Lilián Villalba, General Coordinator, is the Director of the National Museum of Natural History in La Paz, Bolivia. She holds Masters degrees in Wildlife Management and Integrative Biosciences. She has been engaged in Andean cat research since 1998 and is involved in environmental education and conservation activities as crucial elements of Andean cat conservation. Lilián has been a member of the World Conservation Union / Species Survival Commission Cat Specialist Group since 2002.
Working Group Coordinators:
Conservation Coordinator: Dina Farfan
Research Coordinator: Rodrigo Villalobos
Education Coordinator: Maria Jose Merino
Argentina: Juan Ignacio Reppucci
Bolivia: Juan Carlos Huaranca
Chile: Nicolas Lagos
Peru: Anali Madrid
The Andean cat is the most endangered cat species in the Americas. It lives exclusively in the high-altitude deserts of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. Only slightly larger than a domestic cat, it is sometimes killed under the misconception of being dangerous. Some local people use stuffed cats and skins in traditional dances and religious ceremonies and believe that killing a cat will bring good fortune.
The Andean cat is small but sturdy with long ash-gray fur patterned with rusty red spots. Its thick, long tail is banded with approximately seven dark rings and makes it appear larger than it is. Living in rocky areas at high elevations, it is impressively adapted to the harsh climate of the Andes, which experiences frequent freezes, intense solar radiation, large daily thermal variations and low precipitation.
Because food in these severe conditions is scarce, the home ranges of the Andean cat are very large and their population densities low. Consequently, the Andean cat is also one of the most rare and least known felines in the world. In the last 25 years there have been fewer than 10 documented sightings, and there are no Andean cats in captivity.
The natural rarity of the Andean cat makes it particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. Fragmentation of its already isolated high rocky habitat due to livestock grazing, firewood extraction and mining can reduce population density to the point that even low levels of poaching may devastate the species. Lack of information on the species, absence of specific conservation policies and ineffective law enforcement pose challenges to the conservation of this elusive cat.
The Andean Cat Alliance, Alianza Gato Andino (AGA), works to protect the Andean cat in all four range countries. Conservationists from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru established the Alliance and produced a Conservation Action Plan in 2004. Collaboratively, they review current threats to the cat and coordinate conservation activities. Participation by local community members drives AGA's education and research programs.
AGA’s innovative and highly participative approach to conservation maximizes the efficiency of available resources and sets a stellar example for other multinational conservation initiatives. Its programs support local people in becoming conservation educators and researchers. The result is an increase in the knowledge necessary to refine effective conservation strategies, and a strengthened conservation ethic to support their implementation.
Unique Multinational Conservation Model
In keeping with the feline’s natural distribution, AGA employs a novel grassroots, yet cross-border approach to Andean cat conservation. Since high mountain ranges like the Andes often define international borders and therefore transect the Andean cat's habitat, it is imperative that a multinational and cooperative effort be undertaken to conserve the Andean cat throughout its full range. At the same time, AGA’s local researchers are in the best position to manage the conservation effort on the ground, since they are close to the issues and can influence government policy, local practices and education programs.
Success in the Field
AGA’s integrative approach has yielded groundbreaking field accomplishments, including:
- The first capture and radio-collaring of an Andean cat
- The first camera trap photographs of Andean cats in Argentina
- Use of camera trapping and DNA analysis of feces to confirm the Andean cat’s presence in three additional departments in Peru and one additional province in Argentina
- Completion of cat diet studies in Argentina and Chile, yielding important information on prey abundance and preferences
AGA’s conservationists carry out research projects on the Andean cat to determine the geographic distribution and conservation status of this little known species. Research projects are focused on establishing the presence of the Andean cat and other carnivores in unexplored areas, evaluating the environmental and human variables that affect Andean cat distribution, and estimating its population densities and genetic variability.
Finding this tiny cat is easier said than done. In the past, AGA members conducted field surveys based on interviews with local people and subsequently implemented field campaigns in promising areas. Recently, AGA developed a model of suitable habitat distribution based on bioclimatic variables (average annual temperature, diurnal range, annual precipitation, and precipitation of coldest quarter) to identify where they might find this rare and elusive feline. Using this model as a starting point, researchers then carry out intensive searches for indirect signs of the presence of the Andean cat, such as latrines and feces, tracks and skulls. Camera trapping has become an important tool as well, since the Andean cat shares its habitat with another small felid, the pampas cat, and it’s not easy to distinguish between the feces and tracks of the two species. Cameras are installed on wildlife trails and near latrines, and to increase the effectiveness, the traps are baited with odor attractants such as perfume or urine. Collected fecal samples or other potential DNA sources are then sent to the lab for genetic analysis. The results obtained thus far have contributed to the base of knowledge about the Andean cat that is critical to conservation efforts.
Local Wildlife Monitors
AGA researchers alone do not have the ample time and resources necessary to collect all potential data on the Andean cat and its whereabouts. Nor are they intimately familiar with the landscapes of all research sites. In order to gain the greatest knowledge of the Andean cat and set a foundation for continued research in the field, AGA conducts training programs for park guards and local people to fully engage them as wildlife monitors. By working with local stakeholders, AGA creates permanent field teams within the individual communities closest to Andean cat habitat. These field teams generate additional and key information on Andean cats and promote conservation as an important issue within their communities.
Every Andean cat research project has an education component. AGA coordinates education activities in each of the four range countries. In November 2005, AGA conducted an international education workshop in Salta, Argentina to establish a global strategy for local community education, share experiences among participants and train country delegates in pedagogical techniques. One of the products of this workshop was the creation of a handbook, “Let Us Conserve the Andean Cat and its Habitat: Guide for Educators,” which details a full curriculum of activities for Andean cat conservation education.
AGA’s educational activities address general issues of environmental protection in the high Andean region, as well as the specific value of conserving the Andean cat. Activities include drawings, construction of a 3-D Andean cat model, mural paintings and games. AGA hosts community festivals to raise awareness of and celebrate conservation, as well as participatory workshops which provide the chance for all stakeholders to present their opinions on natural resources and the needs of the community. The workshops encourage participants to suggest possible alternatives to harmful practices and empower them to create conservation-friendly initiatives.
AGA is building an EcoMuseo (“Ecological Museum”) in the “Centro Poblado Menor de Alto Perú,” a Peruvian village located in a region where Andean cat presence has been confirmed. In close proximity to Bolivia and Chile, the village faces many of the same environmental issues as communities just across these borders. Economic difficulty is ubiquitous in this high Andean zone in which raising alpacas is virtually the sole source of income. Ecological degradation is also a reality as habitat loss results from the expansion of grazing lands in the effort to make a living.
The EcoMuseo will offer information on the fragility and importance of preserving the high Andean ecosystem and introduce sustainable practices for use of resources. The purpose of the EcoMuseo is to integrate environmental education with eco-tourism, an important alternative source of income. As a key component of the museum's overall conservation strategy to protect the Andean cat, the EcoMuseo is being designed to align with and celebrate the social, cultural and economic needs of the community.
Housed in an existing school structure, the EcoMuseo will be owned and managed by the community. The Parents Association will be in charge of its administration and utilize the profits to purchase books and supplies for the school. In cooperation with AGA, teachers and students will design the museum exhibits. The EcoMuseo has far-reaching potential not only to attract and offer information to visitors from neighboring communities in Chile and Bolivia, but also to serve as a model for them to develop conservation education projects of their own.
Increasing Protected Areas
A prime goal of the Andean Cat Alliance is to strengthen the management of protected areas where the Andean cat is present and, when justified by new research data, to promote the establishment of new protected areas and corridors. In the four range countries, there are thirty-six existing protected areas in which the Andean cat is confirmed or likely to reside. In Argentina and Chile, AGA has identified areas where protection needs be strengthened, as well as new areas that should be given protection status. The AGA members in these countries are working with governments and communities to conserve these areas for Andean cat habitat.