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Conservationists aim to save South America’s super tiny wild cat, the guina

A guina.

Feral and free-ranging dogs in Chile are having a serious and detrimental economic and environmental impact. They have caused significant reductions in livestock, threatened species and wildlife, including the guina. Image courtesy of Jerry Laker/Fauna Australis.

  • The Americas’ smallest wild cat, the guina (Leopardus guigna), is superbly adapted to its home range in Chile and Argentina. But the region is severely affected by deforestation and increasing human population, putting the cat’s future at risk.
  • The increase in people in the guina’s habitat has particularly severe consequences, including roads, fences, fires, cattle and, especially, attacks by dogs. The cats are also hunted by people due to their reputation as chicken killers.
  • Conservation experts and authorities agree that solutions to save the guina must include local people. They have turned their attention to the people living outside protected areas to help conserve one of South America’s most endangered cats.
  • New, groundbreaking environmental legislation in Chile hopefully will also help the cause of the guina and other species impacted by deforestation.

For more than 200 million years, the ancient Valdivian Temperate Forest in southwestern Chile has been a refuge for plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. This global biodiversity hotspot is home to monkey puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana), the endangered chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera), threatened southern pudu (Pudu puda) — the world’s smallest deer — and two critically endangered species: the Juan Fernández firecrown (Sephanoides fernandensis), a hummingbird, and the northern Darwin’s frog (Rhinoderma rufum).

But that’s not all. The guina (Leopardus guigna), the smallest cat in the Americas, also lives here, among the dense understories of bamboo and ferns, hunting for prey including rodents, marsupials, birds and reptiles. Also called the kodkod or Chilean cat, the diminutive guina weighs in at only 2-7 pounds, considerably smaller than domestic cats. It has a bushy tail, spotted brown fur and prominent stripes on the cheeks of its small, round head. It is also one of the most threatened cats in South America, currently listed as vulnerable.

The guina’s habitat is a roughly 160,000-square-kilometer (62,000-square-mile) coastal strip in central and southern Chile, southwestern Argentina, and the large island of Chiloé off the coast of southern Chile. In northern and central Chile, the slightly larger and lighter subspecies (L. g. tigrillo) inhabits Mediterranean climate type woodlands and forests. In their southern range, the darker and smaller subspecies (L. g. guigna) inhabits the denser Valdivian Temperate Rainforest, the Patagonian forest in southern Chile and the Andean Patagonian forest in southwestern Argentina. While the guina has the most restricted distribution among the Americas’ feline species, the small cat is superbly adapted. They have been seen swimming across broad rivers and can quickly scale tall trees to hide from danger, says Chilean-based Constanza Napolitano, a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Los Lagos.

The guina (Leopardus guigna), also called the Kodkod or the Chilean cat, is the Americas’ smallest cat.
The guina (Leopardus guigna), also called the Kodkod or the Chilean cat, is the Americas’ smallest cat. The diminutive feline weighs only two to seven pounds. Image courtesy of Eduardo Silva-Rodríguez.

However, the guina is not revered by everyone: It has an unfortunate reputation among some locals. Labeled a prolific chicken killer, some even liken it to the chupacabra, a mythical vampire-like animal that is said to attack and drink the blood of livestock. Though it has been proved that roaming dogs are the most prolific predators of livestock in Chile, direct persecution as retaliation for killed poultry is a serious threat to the tiny feline’s survival. The little cat is also an easy target for hunters, according to Napolitano, given that it commonly retreats up trees when threatened.

Human-wildlife conflict is just one consequence of the large-scale changes to the guina’s small home range. Chile is renowned for its vast protected areas — to date, the government has conserved 42% of its marine areas and 22% of its terrestrial areas — but land use change near protected areas is the biggest concern for the guina, says Mariano de la Maza, who oversees the Adaptive Management for Conservation Section at the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) Protected Wild Areas Management Office. CONAF administers protected areas in Chile.

Already, habitat destruction has impacted much of the guina’s highly restricted range as deforestation and human populations increase around it. In general, protected areas increase toward the southern part of Chile where the guina and other vulnerable species are also better protected, de la Maza says.

In the northern range, however, people have dramatically reduced the Chilean Matorral ecosystem, a unique and biodiverse Mediterranean ecoregion, converting it into agricultural lands. Meanwhile, logging companies have converted extensive areas of the temperate Valdivian Rainforest to commercial, exotic plantations. And people have cleared native forests for farming and grazelands on Chiloé Island.

In 2014 already, a study in Biological Conservation reported that barely 30% of the Valdivian Forest vegetation survived and the future of Chile’s native forests remained unclear due to a volatile political climate. Here, Indigenous communities are vying for ownership of their traditional lands as plantation owners continue to cut native forests.

Constanza Napolitano captures a guina
Constanza Napolitano captures a guina on the large island of Chiloé off the coast of southern Chile, one of the cats’ remaining habitats. Though they are superbly adapted to their environment, it is the most restricted distribution of New World feline species. Image courtesy of Constanza Napolitano.
The temperate rainforest in southern Chile
The temperate rainforest in southern Chile is home to a vast array of unique animal and plant species, among them the guina, as well as the world’s smallest deer, the threatened pudu. Image courtesy of Constanza Napolitano.

Challenges to guina conservation

On the one hand, the guina has proved relatively tolerant to altered habitats. The cats can be found in secondary forests, exotic pine and eucalyptus plantations, fragmented landscapes and on the fringes of rural and agricultural areas.

However, de la Maza says the loss and fragmentation of their habitat have introduced novel threats unlike those in the temperate forest, including roads, fences, fires and cattle. One of the main problems, especially in rural areas, de la Maza says, are dog attacks.

In a 2021 study in Ecology and Evolution, researchers have already documented the economic and environmental impact of feral and free-ranging dogs in Chile, reporting that they kill an estimated 57,000 sheep annually as well as prey on a large number of threatened species and wildlife, including the pudu and the guina.

Napolitano, an expert in conservation genetics and on the effects of human-driven landscape changes, says these impacts go beyond mortalities. Her research has shown that guina populations that inhabit fragmented, human-dominated landscapes have reduced genetic diversity, suggesting the overall population here is smaller than elsewhere.

“Genetic diversity is directly related to population size,” Napolitano explains, adding that it’s probably because of the lower carrying capacity of the landscape.

Guina also likely have higher dispersal rates in the altered landscapes, Napolitano says, because they need to move more between fragmented habitats looking for food, mating pairs and shelter. This increases the risks of the cats ending up as roadkill or encountering deadly people or dogs.

More movement also increases the risk of pathogen transmission from domestic cats and dogs to guinas. Moreover, the pathogen load in human-altered landscapes is substantially higher than in continuous forests, and some wild cats now carry diseases, including the fatal parvovirus. Guina have also been found to carry feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency viruses. At the moment, the tiny felines have the genetic capacity to withstand these, but this could change if habitat destruction continues unabated, or if their numbers, for any reason, would suddenly drop. Napolitano says the situation must be monitored.

She adds that the guina is still “too common for conservation attention.” Currently, the guina is catergorized as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. More threatened felines, for example the endangered Andean cat (L. jacobita), attract relatively more attention and funding.

The guina has proven to be relatively tolerant of altered habitats
The guina has proven to be relatively tolerant of altered habitats, but the encroachment of human populations has introduced new threats, including the impacts of roads, fires, cattle and especially, feral and free-ranging dogs. Image courtesy of Constanza Napolitano.

Social solutions to saving the guina

To save the guina, conservation experts and authorities have now turned their attention outside protected areas, and beyond the species itself.

“We’ve already tried to solve conservation problems with biology; the world has already tried it, but it doesn’t work,” de la Maza says. Instead, he says, we must go beyond protected areas and work with local people, not only via education but also through sustainable development.

Napolitano agrees that people are key to conservation, noting “we are continuing with new research at the lab, but we also do conservation projects with communities.”

Much of this work is taking place under the helm of the Guiña Working Group (GWG), of which Napolitano is a founding member and the co-chair. They are a small group — but as fiercely dedicated as their felines — composed of researchers, conservationists and advocates working together for the long-term survival of the species and their natural habitat.

The GWG have run various educational and outreach campaigns. One is a community-based monitoring project with camera traps, conducted in the swamp forests in the Los Lagos region of Chile. Here, community members monitor the camera traps and report on their findings. The idea is to empower people to protect their land, according to Napolitano. After positive feedback, they are hoping to replicate it in other communities.

As well, an upcoming project hopes to alleviate the human conflict with guinas. Conservationists will set up camera traps with a speaker that, when triggered, will emit a noise, like dogs barking. Conservationists believe that when the device is placed close to a chicken coop, it will scare away guina and other predators.

Guinas are superbly adapted to their environment and are known to scale trees to escape danger.The guina’s habitatA guinaConstanza Napolitano has been involved in guina research and conservation since her PhD study on the species. Here she is conducting field work on the species with field assistant Valentina Sánchez.New management instruments for biodiversity conservation not only inside, but also outside protected areas in Chile include heavier penalties for environmental perpetrators.An image of a guina from a camera trap.

Looking to the law for help

The law may also be coming to help. De la Maza points out that new, groundbreaking environmental legislation will aid the guina and other species impacted by deforestation. The law established a new framework, the Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service, for the administration of Chile’s protected areas and putting the responsibility for administering protected areas firmly under the Ministry of Environment. It is seen as a powerful recourse to combat biodiversity loss and climate change in the country. Among other tools, it introduces management instruments for conserving species not only inside, but also outside, parks throughout the country, including priority biodiversity sites and ecological restoration strategies.

De la Maza says the new legislation also entails heavier penalties for environmental perpetrators.

“We have the opportunity with the new [Biodiversity and Protected Areas] service to work together with the people and with other organizations outside protected areas,” he says. “That is where the main threats to the species are.”

He points out that CONAF is already working with multiple organizations on various conservation education programs. They aim not only to impart information, but to understand social problems to reduce threats to biodiversity.

“Conservation is not a biological practice anymore,” de la Maza says. “It is a social practice.”

To save the guina, he says, we must work with people.

Banner image: Feral and free-ranging dogs in Chile are having a serious and detrimental economic and environmental impact. They have caused significant reductions in livestock, threatened species and wildlife, including the guina. Image courtesy of Jerry Laker/Fauna Australis.

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Montecino-Latorre, D., & San Martín, W. (2018). Evidence supporting that human-subsidized free-ranging dogs are the main cause of animal losses in small-scale farms in Chile. Ambio, 48(3), 240-250. doi:10.1007/s13280-018-1066-3

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Napolitano, C., Galvez, N., Bennett, M., Acosta-Jamett, G. & Sanderson, J. 2015. Leopardus guigna. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T15311A50657245.

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