Chilean wildlife conservationists are excited about discovering a new population of Andean cats living close to Santiago. Experts think fewer than 1,400 of the Americas’ most endangered cats are left in the wild.

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Previously, conservationists believed the adorable wildcats lived only in remote, rocky places far from cities. But Bernardo Segura, a volunteer with Andean Cat Alliance, had a hunch that the cats might live in Parque Mahuida, a nature reserve on Santiago’s eastern edge. After all, the park is rich in mountain vizcachas, a rodent from the chinchilla family and the cats’ favorite meal. Segura set up wildlife cameras in February and has so far caught more than 40 Andean cat sightings.

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“We have never found a population so close to a large city before,” said Segura, as reported by The Guardian. “This changes what we know about Andean cats and may offer some solutions to how to protect this and other species in the wider mountain ecosystem, which is highly under-studied. Finding one of the most elusive animals in the world just outside Santiago strikingly illustrates this.”

The wildcats measure up to two feet long, stand about 14 inches high and weigh 8-13 pounds. They have ash grey fur with yellowish-brown blotches that give them a striped appearance. Their fur is plush, and their ears rounded. Their long tails stretch 70% of their body length and help them balance while they prowl the rocky terrain. They may also curl up inside their tails for warmth at night, tucking their black noses inside while they dream of their next vizcacha.

Segura’s latest video capture shows a nine-pound male doing usual cat things: spraying shrubs at the base of a cliff, then stealthily picking his way between sharp rocks, his glorious grey and brown-banded tail held straight up.

Having a population so close to Santiago will make it easier for conservationists to learn about the Andean cats and how to best protect them. Scientists can easily gather scat for genetic analysis. “For several of the cats to be living so close to a huge city will open many doors for research,” Segura said. “Trips to the field are usually complicated, far away and difficult to reach, but I can see this site from my own apartment with a long lens.”

Via The Guardian, International Society for Endangered Cats Canada

Lead image by Jim Sanderson – work of Jim Sanderson, CC BY-SA 3.0