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Patagonia Cats Project

Complex challenges of conserving felids in the Patagonian steppe

Globally, wild felids face numerous challenges stemming from habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching. In the vast expanse of the Patagonian steppe, spanning approximately 673,000 square kilometers (approx. the size of Texas), these challenges are acutely felt by three species of wild felids: the puma (Puma concolor), the Pampas cat (Leopardus colocola), and the Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi). While pumas, with their remarkable resilience and adaptability, are relatively well-known to the public, the smaller Pampas and Geoffroy’s cats remain largely obscure, even to scientific inquiry.

The colonization of Argentine Patagonia by Europeans in the late 18th century brought about significant modifications to the natural landscape. The introduction of sheep led to overgrazing, habitat degradation, and desertification, threatening the prey base and habitat of wild felids. As a result, populations of pumas and guanacos (Lama guanicoe: a South American camelid) were decimated, while culpeo fox (Lycalopex culpaeus) populations also suffered drastic declines.

In recent decades, there has been a gradual recolonization of Patagonia by these species, driven in part by a decline in sheep stock due to falling wool prices. However, this return of pumas has reignited conflicts with ranchers, who often resort to lethal measures to protect their livestock. This indiscriminate persecution extends to small cats as well, exacerbating the threats faced by these already vulnerable species.

Despite the resurgence of puma populations, our understanding of the ecology and population dynamics of small cats in Patagonia remains limited. Fundamental questions regarding their population numbers, habitat preferences, and potential taxonomic distinctions remain unanswered. The lack of this crucial knowledge underscores the urgency of conservation efforts aimed at protecting these enigmatic species.

In response to these challenges, the Patagonia Cats Project, launched in 2022, is a partnership between Grupo de Ecología Comportamental de Mamíferos (GECM), INBIOSUR, National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) - Universidad Nacional del Sur (UNS) and Felidae Conservation Fund, seeks to address the critical gaps in our understanding of wild felids in the region. By employing a multifaceted approach that combines scientific research, community engagement, and conservation action, the project aims to develop comprehensive conservation strategies tailored to the unique needs of each species.

Field research poses significant logistical challenges in the vast and remote landscape of Patagonia. Collaborative efforts with other researchers, governmental agencies, and local communities are essential to overcoming these obstacles and making meaningful contributions to conservation.

Camera traps serve as invaluable tools for gathering data on felid distribution and abundance, while interviews with ranchers provide insights into human-wildlife interactions and inform conflict mitigation strategies. Additionally, the project leverages technology, such as mobile phone apps and GIS platforms, to engage with local communities and facilitate data sharing.

Furthermore, the project adopts a One Health approach, recognizing the intricate interplay between ecosystem health, animal well-being, and human livelihoods. In particular, the project investigates the impacts of free-ranging dogs, which pose a dual threat as predators of wildlife and potential vectors of disease transmission. Through camera traps and baited sand stations, the project assesses the effects of free-ranging dogs on felids, while also monitoring the spread of diseases that may affect both wildlife and domestic animals. By understanding these complex dynamics, the project aims to develop holistic conservation strategies that safeguard the health of both ecosystems and communities in the Patagonian steppe.

A crucial aspect of our project involves assessing the impact of landscape disturbance and development on the health of wild felids. Free-ranging dogs pose a significant threat to wildlife throughout Patagonia, as they not only prey on wild animals but also serve as vectors for disease transmission. By monitoring the presence of dogs and their impact on pathogen and parasite exposure in wildlife, domestic animals, and humans, we gain valuable insights into the interconnectedness of ecosystems and human health in this vast landscape. 

Despite the prevalence of hunting in the region, evidenced by puma pelts displayed at ranch entrance gates, our collaborative efforts with local stakeholders instill confidence that we are making strides towards finding enduring solutions to conflicts.

As the project progresses, it continually adapts its strategies based on emerging findings and community feedback. From designing road signs to reduce wildlife roadkill to implementing livestock protection measures, the project employs a holistic approach to conservation that acknowledges the interconnectedness of ecosystems and human activities.

Ultimately, the success of conservation efforts in Patagonia hinges on collaboration and cooperation among stakeholders. By working together to address the threats facing wild felids, we can ensure a future where these magnificent creatures continue to roam the Patagonian steppe for generations to come.

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