Rumours of an elusive feline in the mangrove forest
December 23, 2020 · 8 min read
While collecting data in San Pedro de Vice Mangroves, in the Sechura desert, final year biology student, Alvaro García-Olaechea heard rumours about a “cat-like creature” lurking in the mangroves. The fisherman thought it was an ocelot. “Impossible,” Alvaro thought. He knew that ocelots only lived in dry areas and in rain forests, not in small mangrove forests within deserts.
Long after hearing the fishermen’s tale Alvaro’s mind kept returning to ponder over what the feline creature they spoke of could have been. Alvaro convinced a researcher he had met at a conference on Peruvian mammals to lend him a motion activated camera trap to try to quench his curiosity. The camera trap Alvaro was lent was so ancient it required a spool of film rather than a memory card. He set up the camera trap in a mangrove tree along the border of a tidal channel. In two days the camera trap had snapped all of the 36 frames the spool would allow for. He tells me “To be honest, I just took it [the spool of film] home and forgot about it.”
Alvaro finally got around to developing the spool. Flipping through the photographs, he was initially disappointed. Most of the photographs were triggered by leaves moving in the wind and captured nothing of interest. There were just a few photographs of animals: a black-vulture, a Sechuran fox and then the very last photo taken by the camera was a Pampas cat (Leopardus colocola) otherwise known as a Peruvian desert cat. This was the very first record of the elusive, nocturnal and rare cat occurring in northwestern Peru. He tells me seeing the camera trap photograph of the Pampas cat was a “really woohoo, yay, moment!”
A Pampas cat captured on camera trap as it darts through the undergrowth in San Pedro de Vice Mangrove, Peru.
A Pampas cat?
Pampas cats are small South American wild cats. They are now only found in a few hard to reach and protected areas. These cats were once hunted extensively for their soft thick coats. Today they face threats of habitat loss and degradation due to oil extraction, agricultural cropland and livestock grazing, as well as reduction of prey, which include small mammals like guinea pigs, and ground-dwelling birds. The Pampas cats have even been known to take penguin eggs or chicks from nests. Other threats to these animals are from retaliation killing by farmers, as the cats prey on their poultry and livestock, and also hunting for both cultural purposes mostly in the high Andes and for sport. Little is known about this elusive species, there is speculation the species may in fact be five species because its appearance varies so greatly throughout its range. Currently, there is inconclusive genetic evidence to support this multispecies hypothesis.
A Pampas cat taking a nap in the Illescas Reserve Zone, Peru.
Springing into a career in Pampas cat research
This single camera trap photograph of a Pampas cat, spring boarded Alvaro into Pampas cat research. Before that he’d worked with a range of South American creatures including penguins, sea lions, Andean bears, deers, and foxes, to name but a few. He first published a short manuscript on his discovery of the Pampas cat in San Pedro de Vice mangrove in Check List Journal. Then went on to start BioS and head up Pampas cat research within it.
Alvaro García-Olaechea, a founding member of BioS and co-lead of the Peruvian Desert Cat Project collaring a captured Pampas cat in San Pedro de Vice Mangrove.
Biologists Edgardo Rengifo, Cindy Hurtado, and Alvaro, identified a need for research to assist with conservation and community education. Founding member, Cindy tells me how together they decided to start BioS, which is a grassroots non-profit association. BioS strives to conserve the ecosystems of Peru by engaging with local communities and helping them to use their resources in a sustainable manner. The BioS team has grown from the founding three to eight biologists. All members volunteer their time and skills to BioS, in order to enhance the sustainable development and the conservation of ecosystems in Peru by conducting scientific research and educating local communities.
The BioS Desert Cat project team off to find collared cats to retrieve the data from their collars, in San Pedro de Vice Mangrove.
Alvaro and Cindy head up the BioS Peruvian Desert Cat Project
At BioS Alvaro and Cindy have co-led investigations using camera traps to find out where Pampas cats occur and trained local students to use camera traps. BioS has successfully identified 12 new localities where Pampas cats were not previously known to occur in northern Peru and southern Ecuador They have also evaluated how local people feel about the cats, finding that local people didn’t know the cats exist or feel they are a threat to poultry
Student Renzo Ojeda setting up a camera trap in Cerros de Amotape National Park, in Peru.
Based on these findings BioS has initiated environmental education workshops for local people to make them aware of these rare cats and highlighting their importance in ecosystems. BioS had commenced with GPS collaring Pampas cats to answer questions like:
“Where do they go?”,
“How do they survive in these rugged desert landscapes,”
“How big are their territories?”, and
“What areas are critical for Pampas cat survival?”
A collared Pampas cat on the move in San Pedro de Vice Mangrove.
If only catching Pampas cats to collar them was as simple as catching them on camera trap or calling “here kitty, kitty!” Cindy tells me about her field expeditions to collar pampas cats. She and her team of four, which includes biology students and a volunteer vet head out into remote parts of the desert for three weeks. These remote areas usually have no access to water or cellular phone reception. The team must make fires to cook and camp out in tents under the desert stars, braving the freezing desert nights that melt into scorching days.
The Peruvian Desert Cat project team will camp out in the Sechura desert to catch and collar cats for three weeks at a time.
Cindy tells me about their first trip to catch Pampas cats to collar them. She captured multiple images of Pampas cats sniffing curiously around the cat traps on camera traps but only caught foxes, possums and skunks. On another trip, she managed to catch just one female Pampas cat, however, she was only able to measure her and take samples, because the cat was too underweight to be fitted with a GPS collar. BioS have persisted and successfully collared four of these elusive cats thus far.
An inquisitive Pampas cat captured giving the motion activated camera trap a sniff.
BioS proud partner of Wildcards!
New Wildcards will be launched to raise funds for the BioS. Each card has a captivating, fact-filled story about an individual animal, which BioS researches and helps protect. You’ll be able to publicly buy one of these wildcards online, which will make you the guardian of that Wildcard animal. When you buy a wildcard, you must set the price you are willing to sell it for. Every month, as the guardian of a Wildcard, you will give a specified portion of the selling price you set, to that animal’s representative conservation agency, which in this case, is BioS. At any point, someone can buy the Wildcard from you, at the selling price you specified. When someone buys the Wildcard from you, they must set a new selling price. The new guardian of the Wildcard is then responsible for giving the new monthly subscription. And so, the cycle continues, to generate funds. To find out more about BioS, go to their website. You can also find them on Instagram and Facebook and their Peruvian Desert Cat Project pages on Instagram and Facebook.
Cindy Hurtado, a founding member of BioS and co-lead of the Peruvian Desert Cat Project collaring a Pampas cat in San Pedro de Vice Mangrove.
Wildcards is ecstatic about connecting funders with conservation agencies having a real world impact on the protection of wild animals at risk.
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Written by Rio Button — Chief Conservation Officer at Wildcards.