The Andean Cat
The Species and Its Habitat
The Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita) is a small feline found in the high Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, as well as the northern portion of the Patagonian steppe in Argentina. It is considered the most threatened feline in the Americas and is counted among the five most endangered cats in the world. It shares its habitat with the pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo), another feline of similar size but of wider distribution and with which it is occasionally confused.
The environments where Andean cats live are arid and feature extreme temperatures, scarce vegetation, and rocky landscapes. Steep cliffs transition into predominantly flat terrain, providing shelter not only to the Andean cat but many other animals. Because these rocky patches are not continuous and have dry conditions, the Andean cat and its prey live in a highly fragile ecosystem. This means even minor environmental modifications can have great impacts on native species. The Andean cat and its prey share the rocky patches that are in close proximity to water, making food easy to find, including its favorite prey, the mountain vizcacha (Lagidium spp.), a rodent that resembles a rabbit.
The Andean cat is a mostly nocturnal species, but will also venture out at dusk. It needs large areas to live in, with the habitat of some males reaching the size of 5,000 soccer fields. The species has very low population density, and it is estimated that throughout its distribution range there are fewer than 1,400 adult individuals. There is a great overlap of available resources and territory between Andean cats and pampas cats. This is because the Andean cat is a more specialized species with a more limited range of resources.
Studies reveal that the Andean cat has low genetic diversity, identifying two different populations that should be considered as two Evolutionary Significant Units (ESUs), separated by more than 200,000 years of evolution. One ESU is the population living in the highlands, from central Peru to northern Argentina and Chile, and the second ESU is the population in the Argentine Patagonian steppe. There are still many unknown aspects regarding the genetics of the species. It is completely unknown if there is any type of relationship or partial exchange between these ESUs, and there is no genetic information from recently discovered populations such as those in central Chile.
The current distribution of the Andean cat spans four countries that are culturally, economically, and socially diverse, each with a unique perspective about designing local conservation policies. This represents a challenge when developing conservation strategies, as they have historically been limited by the borders that separate these countries.
The combination of all these ecological, geographical, environmental, and social factors results in the need for innovative strategies that foster participatory projects and are globally scalable, but have local applicability. These policies need to respect the realities and cultures of the communities involved. In order to transcend the geographical limitations imposed by international borders, we develop multinational programs that identify, develop, and improve diverse tools that can then be adjusted to the needs of each community involved.
Historically, the native communities that coexist with the Andean cat have recognized it as a symbol of fertility linked to the spirit of the mountains. They credit the sacred cat of the Andes with the prosperity of livestock and plentiful agricultural yields. Locals traditionally revered the Andean cat by adorning pelts with symbols of abundance, such as coca leaves, corn cobs, and colorful wool. Today, these ancient skins are still used in some ceremonies for marking camelid livestock or at the beginning of the planting and harvest seasons.
The Andean cat has many names in different local languages. It is known as “titi,” “titimisi,” or “titiphisi” in Aymara, as “achamichi” in Atacameño areas, and as “oskhollo” in Quechua-speaking areas.