PHOTOGRAPHY BY PRESTON SOWELL
When we see the Andean condor circling in the distance—just a dot, really, high over the Sibinacocha watershed in the Peruvian Andes—we take it as a sign of good luck. The bird is classified as near-threatened, and it’s rarely seen, largely because it makes its nest as high as 16,000 feet above sea level. But we’re not here for condors. We’re on the hunt for an even more elusive animal: the small, bushy-tailed Andean cat, which lives in the mountains of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru and is the most endangered feline in all of the Americas.
I’ve tagged along on a research expedition with Preston Sowell, an environmental scientist and explorer who has led journeys to Sibinacocha since 2002. The goal is to get a photo of the cat. This isn’t a casual quest, either: Not a lot is known about high-altitude areas like this because they are difficult to study. It’s a harsh environment—low oxygen levels, intense ultraviolet rays, capricious temperatures, storms that brew in the Amazon basin and rumble across the highlands—but a surprising number of creatures call it home.
Finding the cat could help secure legal protection for the Sibinacocha watershed, which is currently under threat from mining and rapid climate change. “Documenting the Andean mountain cat may be a lifeline for protecting the area,” Sowell tells me as we do a final gear check before setting off. “We all rely on the resources that mining brings, and our society can’t survive without it right now. However, some areas just shouldn’t be disturbed. I think the Sibinacocha watershed is one of them.”
After driving about 80 miles from Cusco to the Vilcanota mountain range, we set off on foot for the base camp. The sun is sharp, and my lungs gulp wildly for air. “So this is what you do for fun?” I say, panting, to Sowell, who shoots back, “You signed up for this.”
Joining our expedition (which is sponsored by the Denver Zoo Field Conservation Department) are Kate Doyle, collections manager of the Natural History Collections at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and our team’s mammalogy expert, who first joined the research team in 2000; Dina Farfán Flores, a Peruvian biologist and conservationist who was the last person to photograph the cat in this part of Peru, almost a decade ago in a nearby watershed, adding to the mere handful of photos ever taken of it; and Peruvian biologist Enrique Ramos. We’re also joined by local arrieros (horsemen), who speak a mix of Spanish and the indigenous Quechua language. A small herd of pack horses lugs our equipment and provisions.
After a half day of hiking, we arrive at the 15,988-foot-high Lake Sibinacocha, South America’s highest alpine lake and one of the principal headwaters of the Amazon River. There is a tiny hut on the shore for the people who tend to the alpacas. This structure is the only sign of human habitation, and you can tell by the goofy surprise that registers across the faces of the alpacas that they aren’t used to many visitors.
Extreme conditions and natural grandeur characterize the region in equal measure. I’m immediately struck by the many faces of the mountains, the vastness, the improbable beauty. We are visiting a land once inhabited by the ancient Inca, who lived in close connection with the natural world and its resources. Today, we arrived as modern explorers, eager to study and learn. Somewhere, maybe nearby, is a cat cloaking itself in the mountainscape, in keeping with the mystery of it all.
Scientists don’t know much about the Andean cat’s behavior. Barely larger than a house cat, it lives only in remote, austere areas above 13,000 feet, roaming alone over long ranges to hunt prey like the viscacha, a rabbit-like rodent with long, furry ears. Our team strategically places camera traps, equipped with motion sensors, to collect data. On the first excursion, we find scat, an exhilarating clue. Here. It’s been here. We set a camera and wonder: Will it return? Will we get a glimpse into the unknown?
“Species like the Andean cat allow you to stop, observe, open your heart and mind, reconnect with nature, and accept that there is something more than your comfort zone,” Farfán Flores tells me one night while we drink tea made with meltwater that trickled down from the Puka glacier. Farfán Flores works with communities in Peru to explain the connections between remote wilderness and humankind—for instance, how the glaciers act as freshwater reserves and how the flora and fauna contribute to the overall health of the land. “Most of us never see this up close, but it’s there, and we need it.”
Around the world, scientists and conservationists are like doctors in triage, tending to the protection of selected individual species classified as endangered. In 2002, the Andean cat was added to the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the global authority on the status of the natural world. Total population estimates for the cat range from a high of 2,500 to a low of 1,378. Doyle tells me that the cat is a symbol, a “flagship species” for the culture and ecosystem here. “I’m interested in all mammals living in the region,” she says, “but documenting this particular species may be our best chance for establishing a protected conservation area.”
In the high Andean mountains, the greatest discoveries sometimes begin with a small sign. One afternoon, while investigating a cliff edge, Sowell spots a footprint he thinks might have been left by a cat, and I scurry over to take a photo. Above us, visible on the mountain face, is a nesting pair of great horned owls (likely the highest documented nest of its kind). On the ground, we find white-and-brown-striped feathers. “It’s hard to walk away from a place where you can discover something new each time you visit,”
Sowell says as we gaze across the grassy highland at a herd of leaping vicuña (a wild relative of llamas and alpacas). “There aren’t many places in the world where you can do that anymore.”
I know few people in the world will get to visit Sibinacocha, but I like to think that even those who never make it this high would want to know that places like this exist—and agree that they deserve to be protected. While none of us expects to see an Andean cat during our expedition, simply sharing its home is gratifying. The more we look around, the more there is to see.
Still, as we head back to Cusco after a week of searching and documenting our findings, I feel a gnawing hope that we’ve done enough to track the creature. Now it’s up to the cameras.
Three months later, Sowell returns to the site to collect the data. I’m prepared to be let down once more, but when he calls, it’s to tell me that “Sibinacocha is a magic place after all.” While sorting through the sets of images, he found not one but four pictures of a cat, including a close-up of the distinctive tail: long, thick, and banded with dark rings. I’m flooded by relief and joy.
“It was one of the most satisfying moments that I’ve had in some time,” Sowell says. “My hope is that we can show everyone that a unique natural and cultural resource exists in the Sibinacocha watershed. Perhaps these four photos of this rare cat will help convince someone. If not, I’ll keep looking.”