- There are 17 species of wild felines in Latin America, five of which are so little-studied that they’ve been confused for each other or other species.
- Lack of funding and awareness has hampered efforts to study them as well as measures to conserve the cats and their habitats.
- The main threats that these cats face are habitat loss due to deforestation and the expansion of the agricultural frontier; they’re also at risk from illegal wildlife trafficking, hunting, mining, and the illegal pet trade.
- Mongabay Latam reports on the current situation of five of the most threatened small feline species in Latin America: the Andean mountain cat, the güiña, the tigrillo, the tirica, and the margay.
Many people have never heard of the güiña, or the tigrillo, or the tirica. Unlike their higher-profile cousins, the jaguar and the puma, these elusive wildcats aren’t well-known. In fact, many experts consider them cryptic; they’re difficult to differentiate from one another at a glance, and some are even smaller than the domestic cat, which makes spotting them in the wild a near-impossibility. Even finding their pawprints or tracks is a minor miracle.
“There aren’t more studies about the güiña because there are few people who take on this topic, and there are few people because there are no concrete plans to study it,” says Martín Monteverde, the terrestrial ecosystems director at the Neuquén Center for Applied Ecology in the Argentinian Patagonia. The güiña (Leopardus guigna), also known as the kodkod, is a small cat that weighs barely 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds). It’s nocturnal and tends to nest in treetops, and makes a sound that’s more like that of a bird than of a cat. The güiña is very difficult to observe; it’s so small that it disappears entirely in knee-height shrubs or grass, allowing it to travel through forests and agricultural areas undetected.
The güiña isn’t the only small South American wildcat that’s rarely been studied; the tirica (Leopardus guttulus), or southern tiger cat, is another. It’s bigger than the güiña, measuring up to 1 meter (3 feet) in length, and is slender, with a narrow snout, a short, thin tail, and a rougher coat than other small wildcats. It lives in the Atlantic Forest of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, but because its habitat is shrinking, it’s been confined to small patches of forest.
The tirica is an animal masked in mystery. It was only described as a distinct species 10 years ago, having previously been considered a subspecies of the tigrillo (Leopardus tigrinus), or northern tiger cat. Although it was chosen as the official mascot of the South American Games in Paraguay last year, most Paraguayans aren’t familiar with it and can’t tell it apart from species like the margay (Leopardus wiedii) or ocelot (Leopardus pardalis).
“Often, what we know about small felines is [by] chance: temporary and even incidental information,” says José Fernando González Maya, scientific director of the Water and Land Conservation Project (ProCAT) and co-president of the Small Carnivore Specialist Group at the IUCN. “In other words, information about them is obtained when studies are being done on other species.”
In this series, Mongabay Latam explores what we know and what we don’t about five small wildcats facing various conservation challenges: the Andean mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita), listed by the IUCN as endangered; the güiña, tigrillo and tirica, listed as vulnerable, and the margay, considered near threatened.
This interactive graphic shows the distribution range of the different cat species found in Latin America.
Research difficulties and a lack of studies
The gap in information surrounding many small cat species is gigantic. According to González Maya, “For most of [these species], we do not know very basic aspects of their ecology and their biology, and we do not know their conservation status.”
Scientists say this knowledge gap extends even to the largest of South America’s felines, the puma (Puma concolor) and the jaguar (Panthera onca), even though much more information has been collected them than about their smaller cousins. Furthermore, small wildcats aren’t considered as charismatic as big ones, which puts them at a strong disadvantage when it comes to attracting funding for research and conservation efforts.
Another obstacle that keeps many researchers from studying this group of felines is that the species are very elusive and complicated to study, especially since they require strong sampling efforts in the field. In some cases, scientists have spent years in the field without ever spotting one in the flesh. This is why camera traps play a key role in confirming their presence in ecosystems.
“There are collections [in the field] where there are still specimens for which there is taxonomic uncertainty, where we do not know their precise names. All of this complicates the situation,” González Maya says.
The best example of this is the set of obstacles faced by researchers, who, despite difficulties, have spent years studying elusive species like the güiña and the margay.
“How many güiñas have I seen in the more than 15 years that I’ve spent studying the species? In nature and alive, none — just two that had been hunted,” says Monteverde, the Argentinian ecologist.
If seeing this small inhabitant of the Andean forests in southern Argentina and Chile is so challenging, finding its pawprints or trails can often seem like a massive win. But difficulty finding feces prevents researchers from gaining greater knowledge about the dietary habits of the güiña, so unconfirmed hypotheses abound. “It surely eats rodents, small mammals and reptiles. Birds? Since it spends plenty of time up in the trees, it is very probable that [it eats them] too. Traces of dead birds at the feet of several Nothofagus tree species allow us to assume this, as well as the possibility that they prey on nests to eat eggs,” Monteverde says.
The margay, sometimes known as the “trapeze artist of the trees,” has incredible agility and spends almost all its time moving among branches. This small spotted cat, with its multishaded brown fur, can be differentiated from other species by its long tail — which can measure more than 70% of its total body length — and its large eyes, which give it a striking, yet tender, appearance. However, this has not stopped it from being part of the list of forgotten small wildcats. “The truth is that there is not sufficient information about the margay due to a lack of funds; it is not due to a lack of interest,” says Sasha Carvajal, a biologist and wildlife ecologist.
Although the need to collect more information is a common factor for all the South American felines, the tigrillo in particular is the least-understood and needs the most attention, says González Maya, a co-author of the most complete review of the species in Colombia. It’s probable, for example, that tigrillo populations in Costa Rica and Panama could be an entirely different species than the ones in the Andes mountain range. “And by being a different species, it would be very restricted, almost microendemic to the high areas of the Talamanca mountain range,” González Maya says.
Ilad Vivas, a Venezuelan biologist who’s dedicated himself to studying the tigrillo in his home country, says nonexperts “could confuse a tigrillo with an ocelot or a margay, or even with a common cat, because of its size.”
Then there’s the Andean mountain cat, which, like the others, is also elusive and difficult to spot. It’s the highest-ranging of the small wildcats, thriving in rocky, arid areas with little vegetation. At these elevations, its diet is restricted to a few rodent species, like the degu (Octodon degus), southern viscacha (Lagidium viscacia), and yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse (Phyllotis xanthopygus).
Little is known about the Andean mountain cat’s population. The most recent official figure counted 1,378 adult individuals dispersed across the four countries that form its range: Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Scientists studying the species agree that now is the time to conduct a new evaluation. “I have colleagues who have spent more than 20 years studying the Andean mountain cat and have not been able to see one. Being in front of this animal is very strange,” says Peruvian biologist Anthony Pino.
Learning more about the tirica is another of the long-term goals of the scientific community, especially considering that it’s only been studied for a few years as its own species and not as a subspecies of the tigrillo. “It is a species that can be active during the day or night. Also, they are strange and elusive animals and the schedules [of when they are] suddenly active are unpredictable. It could be at dawn or at dusk,” says Paula Cruz, a biologist at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). In other words, uncertainty surrounds this small wildcat.
Conservation status of different Latin American felines. Pending evaluation (gray), least concern (green), vulnerable (orange), near threatened (yellow), near threatened – not evaluated (gray), endangered (red).
Animals losing their habitats
“The general situation of the small felines in Latin America is concerning because they are suffering strong threats mainly related to deforestation, which leads to habitat loss,” says ecologist González Maya.
All of the scientists studying the güiña, tirica, margay, tigrillo and Andean mountain cat share the same concern that these small cats are being left without a habitat.
The güiña lives in the temperate and Patagonian forests of the Andes mountain range. It was only recently discovered that its distribution limit might almost reach the Atacama Desert, where it may live in brush-filled areas and drier forests. However, the wide area that it occupies is highly fragmented, and it lives in regions with many humans present, often in the midst of agroindustrial activities and a grid of roads that it must navigate. “The frequency of accidents that we see is high, and so is the [number of] attacks they suffer due to dogs that are not controlled by their owners,” says Constanza Napolitano, an associate professor at the Conservation Genetics laboratory at Chile’s University of Los Lagos.
Having plenty of space to move around isn’t a guarantee of safety. For example, the tigrillo and the margay have lost enormous amounts of habitat.
The IUCN warns that protected areas outside of the Amazon may not retain viable populations of margay in the next few years. The problem may even be worse; Esteban Payán, a biologist and director of the big cats program for Latin America at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has suggested the species isn’t very abundant in that biome to begin with. Additionally, the Amazon Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), a research collective, has provided a bleak estimate: the entire Amazonian region could lose up to 23.7 million hectares (58.6 million acres) of native vegetation by 2025.
“The key points about the tigrillo are that it has a very low range of tolerance to environmental disturbances, its dietary niche is more restricted than that of the rest of the felines in the Leopardus genus, except the margay, its rate of reproduction is lower, and it depends on primary forests,” says Vivas, the Venezuelan biologist. “It is difficult to see it in non-Amazonian habitats.”
The Andean mountain cat also has a reduced and fragmented habitat that’s increasingly at risk. Because the cat prefers high-altitude ecosystems, its home is among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This is compounded by the fact that each individual requires a range of 3,500-4,500 hectares (8,650-11,100 acres) to live in due to the low density of prey species at this elevation. “For this reason, there are not many individuals in the same place, and their population densities are low,” says Lilian Villalba, a scientist with the Andean Cat Alliance (Alianza Gato Andino, or AGA) in Bolivia.
The tirica is even more restricted in terms of viable habitat. It lives only in the Atlantic Forest, the most deforested biome in South America that survives in just a handful of scattered fragments. “This area is super-transformed and it is probable that few populations of the species remain,” González Maya says. Cruz adds that “the ocelot displaces the tirica, so the [tirica] needs forest corridors to be able to move. However, by not finding those ‘passageways,’ so to speak, its habitat area is reduced more and more.”
Surviving despite crimes
Payán from WCS says he believes these small wildcats, just like the bigger puma and jaguar, are being affected by new threats that have increased in the past few years. These include fires set by humans in ecosystems like the Amazon, the Pantanal and the Cerrado, in addition to a growing illegal market for the body parts of “spotted cats” of the Leopardus genus. The animals also face hunting, capture for the illegal pet trade, and threats from both legal and illegal mining within their habitats.
The case of the tigrillo is emblematic because of the gold mining in Venezuela’s Orinoco Mining Arc, an area of about 11.1 million hectares (27.4 million acres), about twice the size of Costa Rica. Hundreds of mining concessions have been granted in this area for the extraction of gold, coltan and diamonds. These complex, violent places are where local armed groups, Colombian guerrillas, and Brazilian miners operate. In the midst of this situation, mining is displacing the tigrillo from its natural habitat and even sickening it with the mercury left in the rivers.
“It could be the first feline to disappear,” says biologist María Abarca, co-author of the book Felinos de Venezuela (Felines of Venezuela). “Felines are very sensitive to mercury, either due to bioaccumulation in their prey or due to the presence of the metal in the water.”
The Andean mountain cat is another species threatened by mining in countries like Peru and Chile. Nicolás Lagos, a researcher and field coordinator of the CATcrafts Program in Chile, says its habitat overlaps with deposits of gold, silver and copper in the high mountain range. Mining companies enter these areas and use dynamite to blast the hills, disrupting enormous areas of land to construct their networks of roads, pipelines and high-voltage transmission lines.
Lagos says there’s a cascading effect: the Andean wetlands known as bofedales dry up as a result of this activity, and the viscachas that depend on their perennial vegetation for food migrate out. “As a consequence, the Andean mountain cat is also losing its food. By extracting water, the miners have dried up many ponds, salt flats and bofedales, which are the source of life in the Altiplano,” Lagos says.
The margay faces different threats: retaliatory hunting and the illegal pet trade, the latter driven by its almost docile appearance that has turned into something of a curse for the animal. Although the IUCN considers it a near threatened species at the global level, in Mexico it’s been declared endangered because of indiscriminate hunting several decades ago.
Margays continue to be threatened by hunting in other countries in the region, like Colombia and Bolivia. By leaving the forests where it once lived, it has to look for prey in human areas, which is where it comes into conflict with people.
“People won’t use a bullet on small cats, because the bullet has a cost,” says Paola Nogales-Ascarrunz, a biologist and director of the Feline Research Program of Bolivia (PIF Bolivia). “So the retaliation methods are worse because they throw stones at them and set traps. To me, it seems more sadistic.”
In other cases, margays are captured as pets, but as they grow up they exhibit the same instincts as they would in the wild. In captivity, they also often fall victim to abuse or disease transmitted by other domestic animals. “It will not behave as you expect, and it will attack you when it can,” Nogales-Ascarrunz says. She cites the case of a female margay rescued from captivity: her claws had been removed, she was missing an eye, and her fangs were gone.
The güiña is also a victim of hunting when it searches for food among domestic animals. “It is common to hear that a güiña killed 20 chickens and took just one,” says Napolitano, the Chilean professor. “The economic problem is pretty minor,” adds Nicolás Gálvez, an agricultural engineer and doctor of biodiversity management at Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University.
The tirica is also known to be a victim of hunting and is occasionally captured for the wildlife trafficking industry. However, in countries like Paraguay, there are few known cases of this.
In 2016, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Paraguay (MADES) raided a restaurant in the capital, Asunción, where they found the owner had hung the pelts of several wild animals on the walls. Among them were two tirica skins. In October 2018, MADES rescued a tirica being kept as a pet in San Bernardino, a city near Asunción. These are among the only recorded incidents involving tirica trafficking that are officially available.
Today, one of the main goals of scientists studying these small wildcats is to expand the knowledge that we have, not just about these five felines, but about all those that live in the Americas. “Latin America is probably one of the world’s richest regions in [terms of] feline diversity,” González Maya says, “and this gives us some very important challenges in terms of their conservation.”
Banner image courtesy of Kipu Visual.