Motion-sensor camera traps in Chile’s Los Flamencos National Reserve have captured images of an Andean mountain cat and her cub, marking the first time these rare felines have been recorded at the reserve in its 25-year history.

For researchers from the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), working with the Andean Cat Alliance (AGA), the photographic evidence is another vital puzzle piece in the quest to better understand this secretive species.


Andean cats (Leopardus jacobita) are one of the rarest and least-studied felines in the Americas (and possibly the world). Even by feline standards, the species is elusive. Prowling the windswept peaks of the Andes mountain range where Chile, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia meet, these endangered cats are very rarely seen by anyone aside from local communities living on the slopes of their alpine habitat. Prior to 1998, the only hard evidence we had that the cats even existed came from just two photographs.

For ecologist and wild-cat researcher Jim Sanderson, unravelling the mysteries of this rare species was a challenge too tempting to ignore. He headed to Chile in 1998 with little more to go on than intuition and the hope that a distinctive orange pole visible in the background of one of the two existing photos would lead him to his quarry. Andean cats were originally thought to have small home ranges, so Sanderson hoped that if he found the pole, he might just find the cats.

It took six weeks of camping out in a trailer on an icy hillside, but Sanderson finally found his cat – or rather, the cat found him. As he walked out of his temporary alpine home one morning, the ash-coloured feline was perched casually just a few hundred feet away.

The discovery eventually sparked into life the Andean Cat Alliance (AGA), an organisation formed by Sanderson, a multinational scientific team and the Wildlife Conservation Network to help conserve this rare species. The latest camera trap imagery includes over two hours of footage of a mother and her playful cub, and goes a long way to helping us understand the distribution of these cats, which had previously not been recorded in this area.

"This is a very significant sighting because we had thought that Andean cats lived only in one part of northern Chile," CONAF biologist Mariano de la Maza told reporters. "Now we know the cat has a larger distribution than we thought before."


Andean cats face a number of threats to their survival. Habitat loss largely from mining development, traditional hunting for cultural practices and a reduction in prey species like the mountain chinchilla all pose a risk to the estimated 2,500 Andean cats that call the South American mountains home.

"This is one of the five most endangered cats worldwide, but we have to know where it is present so we can protect it," said Maza. "With this sighting, we can now form a new conservation plan for them based on the information we have."