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Campsite in the Andes, Argentina

"The Argentine Espinal is not the type of landscape able to catch people’s imagination. It is a flat, arid -almost like a desert- and uniform scrubland, with sandy soils and smooth green to gray colors. In fact, when the summer sun makes the ground so hot it hurts and the tallest vegetation is less than two meters tall, it is rather the place where you would send your enemies to. And yet…. I like being there! Perhaps it is because of the fact that is so close and yet so different to the totally modified pampas, where croplands dominate the landscape. Or perhaps because I know that there are still many pumas out there! Most of the members of my team (and I am not an exception) always wanted to work with pumas, but it is only now, in this apparently deprived habitat, that we are taking a relatively large number of beautiful puma photographs. And this is so in spite of the fact that the pumas that we found dead, hanging from fences, sadly outnumbers those we photographed.
These cats are thin, pure skin and muscles. They are true survivors, probably in constant displacement in an environment where each human being is almost certainly a potential killer and water and cover are scarce, but food is still available. And they reinforce our commitment: we want to help these survivors to survive!" - Mauro Lucherini, Project Leader and PH.D. Zoologist

Heading out into the high Andes to track the three species of elusive cats that live above the clouds is a more complicated endeavor than one might imagine. The journey from San Francisco to Loma Blanca, Argentina, the last “town” in civilization before camp, yet barely a blip on the map, was long and tiring. During the 90-minute trek up to camp I was reminded that breathing and hiking for the first couple of days at the high altitude (above 14,000 ft.) would be challenging. 

Camp consisted of small rock hut leftovers, with some tents spaced around wherever the ground was level enough to sleep. There was a stream close by that supplied our water. Some of the massive rock formations above camp looked so precariously positioned that a strong wind might tip them off in our direction.

The field effort had been ongoing for about 10 days when we arrived, and there were already several traps set up, with live bait, to draw the very elusive Andean cat. Camera trap shots over the past five years have confirmed their presence, along with Pampas cats and pumas, but capturing these rarely seen felids is a whole other story. The field team totaled eight, including Mauro Lucherini, a leading researcher on the Andean cat from Argentina's Universidad Nacional del Sur, Juani Reppucci of the Andean Cat Alliance, two of us from Felidae, and Paloma, a veterinarian from Peru who joined the effort for a couple of weeks. We added new traps and moved others during the first few days in camp. The altitude became less of an issue and the vertical rocky hikes more enjoyable.

The week passed quickly, with long hikes, high altitude vistas, and massive rock formations that often seemed like surreal visages in the changing light. Our last night in camp arrived abruptly, it seemed. We all sat together pre-last-supper as Paloma and I looked at each other with a knowing glance. We knew a cat would visit our traps that night. Within 10 minutes, literally, the alarm sounded on one of the traps. It was a clear alarm and Juani was on his way within minutes. It was dusk. The light was fading as we watched Juani scramble up the rocks. We dispersed and gathered our capture gear as if we knew what the radio contact back from Juani would be.

"Wow!…these things are so different in real life than in the pictures!!!” were the excited words from the other end. We all jumped up and in the near darkness made our way upwards, the light from our headlamps leading the way.

A Pampas cat had been lured into our small cage at the top of a craggy windswept cliff. Vastness in three directions was lit by a clear view of the Milky Way shining brightly in the absence of other light. The Pampas cat in the cage was a surprisingly small female, and wildly fierce despite her size. As the team prepared the drug a short distance away, I sat alone with her in the darkness, and she became quiet and calm. Once the drug was administered it took effect quickly. I took her from the cage and carried her across the rocks, feeling her lightness and the power of the surroundings in an overwhelming rush of clarity. Moments later I handed her off to Juani for the workup.

The wind howled and somehow no one seemed to notice the bitterness of the sub-zero temperatures. Who would have guessed that this small beautifully marked cat would be the first pampas cat to be fitted with…oh no wait! She was a mere 3.4kg and too small for the GPS collar. So we took measurements and pictures, and then gave her the reversal drug. A small team waited with her until she was ready to safely move on her way again.

It was a late night, and back in camp Mauro served up far better grub than you would ever expect in our makeshift digs high up in a remote region of the Andes, some 5 miles from the Bolivian border. We hiked out in the early morning, and took in the last views of animated rock shapes and high desert openness. The light was soft, as if bidding us farewell, for now. - Zara McDonald

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