By PhD Rocío Palacios, General Coordinator
Time is a precious commodity, but we all handle it differently depending on culture and life. Today I want to ask for some of your precious time to tell you a story. This is not my story, or the story of a particular person. It’s the story of a herder, a hypothetical herder that represents all the tough herders that live and work in north Patagonia and the high Andes. But for this I will need you to use your imagination. In this story you will be a conservationist. You have dedicated your life to protecting one of the most special creatures in the Andes Mountains – the Andean cat. There are less than 1400 of these cats left in the wild. The Andean cats are small, just a little bit bigger than a house cat, perfectly camouflaged to blend into their environment. These few cats spread out over thousands of miles of habitat, and you know that you are saving an animal you might not ever see in person so you rely on camera traps and other evidence to monitor this sacred species considered to be the protector of the mountains by native descendants.
Your story starts with waiting at a bus stop and later traveling for 8-10 hours in a bus that appears to be perilously close to falling apart. As you make your way through twisty roads in rugged mountains, you make a conscious effort not to think about the dangerous roads that the bus is traveling, because it makes you aware of your own mortality. Around you, people talk scarcely, when they do it’s in a language that is not your own, but it feels like it belongs to the area as much as the rocks outside and the stars in the sky do. Some people stare at you as if you are a strange bug while others nod ever so slightly; they have seen you before.
When you arrive at a “town”, surprised at being alive, you let go a sigh of relief while stepping out of the bus. First thing you do is to deeply inhale the fresh air that smells like clean earth. You struggle to get your sunglasses on in hopes of protecting your eyes from the sun that feels like it’s burning the very inside of your skull.
After a quick round of hellos to some important people and delivering some presents, you start walking to reach the campsite before the sun sets. You need to walk for a couple of hours, and start disconnecting from the sights and sounds of city life and from overdue deadlines. With every step you take, you ascend more and more into the wild and start getting focused on the walk. You revel at the sight of the condor soaring above, the mountain vizcachas that run when you approach. You walk, listening to the sound of your breathing and heartbeat, making an effort to remember to go slowly to avoid altitude sickness. Eventually, something happens, maybe it’s a group of vicunas running in the distance, or something smaller like an endemic species of lizard that lives in this place and nowhere else in the world. The young lizard with a bright yellow tail is looking at you without fear, it has probably never seen a human before. At that particular moment, you feel the big connection and you become a part of the surroundings. Serenity. Gratefulness. You remember why you are in the middle of nowhere, chasing a ghost-cat. You have an important job to do.
As you set up camp you take a moment to enjoy the setting sun and admire the colors of the golden hour before taking some pictures. The camp food you eat (which always tastes good after so much physical work) is gone, and you set up the area to sleep. Without light interference, you are always surprised at the amount of stars in the sky and try to remember some constellations. Drowsiness sets in while listening to the deep, open, liberating silence. You feel safe, but also very vulnerable. The feeling of happiness embraces you as your sleeping bag envelopes you in warmth and you fall into a deep regenerative sleep.
When the sun comes up, your work starts. The first task is to check camera traps, and install new ones. You pack up your GPS, batteries, card reader, snacks and all the water you can carry, and start following your grid. Reaching the first camera trap, you take it out of its case and change the batteries and SD card, check position, shoot a couple of test shots, and make the final adjustments. Since there isn’t enough time or battery life in your computer to check the SD cards at the site, you need to exercise your patience until you return to town to see if you captured any cat photos. Finding fresh cat scat makes you excited so you take care collecting a sample that will be saved for genetic analysis; you really hope this time it belongs to an Andean cat. Later in the day you walk to more locations where you want to install cameras. First you find goats, then a dog, later a house. You know somebody has to be present because the dog is here, so you clap your hands to alert the homeowner about your presence.
This is when the herder comes out. A short man with golden brown skin from years of sun exposure appears. His eyes don’t flinch under the bright light, and when he looks at you, he seems to be looking inside, or maybe through you. Suddenly you feel like a stranger, an outsider. You know he belongs here a lot more than you do. Of course, he invites you in, he never gets visitors. When you walk into his small house with a low ceiling and dirt floors, the first thing you see is an Andean cat tail hanging from the roof – one of his sparse decorations. He offers you his only crooked chair, and moves the coals around to activate the fire before settling the kettle to prepare the traditional drink, mate.
All of this is done in silence, which you respect. This person is sharing his water with you, this is an important gift in the desert. After a couple of rounds of mate, he starts asking questions and you tell him a little bit of what you do, show him a camera trap, even decide to spend some of the computer’s precious battery life to show him pictures from the cards you just recovered near his house. While you are going through some pictures, an image of a puma appears, and you can feel this herder stiffening up. Just a subtle change in posture that would go unnoticed in the big city, it’s like a flashing light here. This provides an opportunity to ask about his interactions with the cats and he tells you that over the past three years the puma has killed half of his goats. He tells you of his extreme dislike of the carnivores and this is why he kills them all. If you are patient and open hearted enough, he may tell you that goats are the only way he knows of to support his family with dignity. Goats are his main investment and his savings. You have heard similar stories before, and understand his reality, so you wait. After more silence and more quiet mates, he finally feels comfortable enough to open up. He lets you know that he does not sleep well anymore, waking up at night with every noise, afraid that a puma will be attacking his remaining goats. He misses his family in town, because he feels he has to stay with the goats all the time. This person, in the middle of nowhere, with no water, electricity, no deadlines… he tells you he doesn’t have time to see his family. He tells you that his wife used to work for the local school, but she had to quit to take care of the kids because he is in the field all the time. It’s really hard for them to make ends meet. He ends up telling you that he is planning to move to another town to work for the mining company but he doesn’t want to go. He sees no other options. Sadly, he is not the only one, lots of the other herders from town are having the same problem. The stress of losing their livestock to predators weighs heavy on their mind, making them want to move to a more stable job – even one that is not very desirable.
Luckily, as an Andean Cat Alliance (AGA, for the Spanish Alianza Gato Andino) member, you can provide some help. The AGA team has been developing programs focused on reducing the threats to the species, but customizing the interventions to what each community is willing to implement. You invite him and the whole community to meet with you and the team. During the meeting you offer different tools they could implement. You explain that these tools have been successful in other, very similar, places that are part of the Conflict Mitigation Program. Each one of these tools will reduce the conflict with carnivores and have different pros and cons. From Livestock Guardian dogs, to the improvement of their corrals, they get to choose what they want to try, usually combining it with their own strategies. The only thing AGA asks from them is not to kill the cats; any cat – all cats big or small.
You may also propose that the women artisans in the community may be interested in increasing the family income by producing some sustainable handcrafts as part of the growing CATcrafts program. If they do, training led by other artisans from other communities will be facilitated, and workshops will be organized to help them decide what they want to create, usually something supporting ancestral techniques. At some point you will invite the school teacher/director to incorporate some of the educational materials already designed to include the Andean cat and other native wildlife into the school curriculum. People in the community now know you. If you see that is needed, you can start working to improve the health status of pets, while facilitating access to vaccination and neutering, increasing responsible ownership.
Several months go by while you work in other locations, trying to fill in the gaps in the distribution map of the Andean cat as part of the “In the Field 24/7 Program”. After a year you go back to visit the herder. This time you meet with him in town, and he greets you with a smile, surrounded by his wife and kids. He tells you it’s time to go feed the livestock guardian dog, and invites you to walk along. Once again you start walking the familiar mountain path, enjoying the silence and magic all around. When you arrive, the dog approaches, eats the food and drinks the water that you brought him, accepts one or two pats on the back, and goes back to his “work” of taking another nap in the middle of the herd. The herder, with his bright eyes and a relaxed expression, watches him go. Then this tough herder looks you straight into the eyes, and thanks you. He tells you he is happy because he has time to be with his kids more, and that he sleeps through the night because he trusts the dog will take care of the goats. His wife is happy, learning and teaching, and the kids talk about the beautiful Andean cat all the time. He is not thinking of moving anymore. This moment is as rewarding and inspiring as finding an Andean cat picture while checking the camera traps – you feel humble, and honored to be able to do this work.
AGA has a sensible approach to conservation, including the communities as key pieces in the construction process to develop interventions. The success of this approach and all AGA´s programs can be measured by the fact that even with the pandemic, AGA´s outreach had expanded. The CATcrafts program doubled in the number of communities. The Conflict Mitigation Program reached two new towns, and had a success rate of 87% of reduction in livestock losses from carnivore attacks. Members have been actively participating and supporting movements for creating three protected areas, encompassing 1.600.000 acres. As a team, we decided to invest in hardware, and bought vehicles, camera traps and other field gear. With them, we obtained new Andean cat records in four new locations. We were able to achieve this because of the passion of its individual members and the support system created by friends, donors and Wildlife Conservation Network, as our main supporter and fiscal donor. But even when all of these measurable successes are important they don’t honor the most relevant success: that individual herder that you worked with changed his behavior and stopped hunting wildcats. He is happy, and found a way to coexist with native carnivores while being fulfilled.
Time is by far the most precious thing we have. Where we choose to invest it will result in feeling fulfilled or frustrated. This herder made a choice, he invests his time in training and feeding the dog and in exchange he gains peace of mind. We, the conservationists, invest time in doing this exhausting job, because it fills us with hope that a positive coexistence is possible. To anyone reading this, we invite you to invest your time learning more about AGA and other endangered species. I really wish that in exchange we can provide a glimpse of the marvelous change that is possible, change we see everyday in the communities we work at. We all can make a difference from whenever we are, be part of the change!