Less than 100 of these wildcats remain, but innovative conservation efforts spark hope

A close up of a Muñoa’s pampas cat

— Muñoa’s Pampas cat, a small wild feline, is endemic to the Pampas grasslands that sprawl over southern Brazil, Uruguay and northeastern Argentina.

— With fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild, experts call Muñoa’s pampas cat one of the most endangered felines in the world and warn it go extinct within 10 years as its natural habitat is cleared for cropland.

— Conservation plans to save the species include switching from monocultures to extensive ranching that preserves the natural grasslands, creating a captive-breeding program, and developing a trinational conservation agreement.

— Recent floods in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, where many Muñoa’s Pampas cat sightings have been recorded, have currently halted all local conservation efforts, putting the future of this feline at risk.

The Pampas grasslands, spanning southern Brazil, Uruguay, and northeastern Argentina, are home to a wildcat so rare that researchers consider it the most endangered of its kind in the Americas, and possibly the world.

Most sightings of this domestic cat-sized feline come from camera-trap images that have documented its distinctive fawn-colored coat, fluffy fur and black-striped legs. It’s the elusive Muñoa’s Pampas cat, also known as the Uruguayan Pampas cat (Leopardus munoai).

“There’s an estimated 100 individuals or less left in the wild,” Fábio Mazim, an ecologist from Pró-Carnívoros, a conservation nonprofit that focuses on carnivorous mammals in Brazil, told Mongabay. “It’s a species that, I believe, will be extinct in five to 10 years.”

So little is known about Muñoa’s Pampas cat that scientists can’t even agree on whether it’s a distinct species, Leopardus munoai, or a subspecies of the Pampas cat, Leopardus colocola. Although L. munoai isn’t yet recognized by the Cat Specialist Group at the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, scientists began to acknowledge it as a distinct species in 2021.

A Muñoa's pampas cat
Little is known about the Muñoa’s pampas cat. Experts say it lives like a nomad wandering around the grasslands looking for suitable habitats. (Fábio Mazim, Paulo Wagner, Maurício Santos, Moisés Barp, Yan Rodrigues/Bichos Raros do Pampa projeto)

Conserving the cat hasn’t been easy. Recent floods in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, among the worst natural disasters in the country’s history, have submerged almost the entire state and abruptly interrupted all conservation efforts to protect Muñoa’s Pampas cat.

Plans had included building a conservation alliance across the three countries where the cat occurs, educational visits to local universities and schools, meetings with state representatives, a capture campaign to fit the felines with tracking GPS collars, and monitoring 60 camera traps installed across the state — although researchers lament the possible loss of cameras in the floods.

“Everything needs to be replanned,” Felipe Peters, a biologist and small cat researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, told Mongabay.

A map of South America map showing the distribution region of the five pampas cat species.
The map shows the distribution region of the five pampas cat species across South America. The Muñoa’s pampas cat roams a small pocket of land across the southernmost tip of Brazil, Uruguay, and northeastern Argentina. (Jim Sanderson/Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation.)

Much of the little that’s known about this elusive cat comes from sporadic sightings.

In an independent project spanning 25 years, camera traps monitored by Mazim and four friends — veterinarian Paulo Wagner and biologists Maurício Santos, Moisés Barp and Yan Rodrigues — snapped just nine records of four individual cats.

Their findings include the first recorded case of melanism in Muñoa’s Pampas cat, a condition in which the fur is completely black, spotted in 2021.

“We needed to install camera traps over 50% of the area of the [Brazilian] Pampas, which covers 17.6 million hectares [43.4 million acres], demonstrating how rare this feline is,” Mazim said.

Overall, 32 records, including footprints, camera-trap images, observations, and dead individuals of Muñoa’s Pampas cat have been obtained in Brazil since 1997. More than half of these records were road kills. Despite long-term efforts to monitor the remaining cats, researchers have yet to detect a resident population.

“It seems that this cat lives like a nomad, wandering the Pampas in search of territory,” Mazim said.

Other researchers have collected four records in Argentina, representing two adults and one young individual, as well as two in Uruguay since 2000. Since the species was first described in the mid-1920s, just over 200 records have been compiled across the entire Pampas biome.

“The secretive nature and elusive behavior of small cats make them difficult to study and monitor effectively,” Wai-Ming Wong, director of small cat conservation science for Panthera, the global wildcat conservation NGO, told Mongabay.

Dwindling habitat

The main threat to Muñoa’s Pampas cat is the loss of habitat in the Pampas, the largest grassland biome in South America.

It sprawls across more than 1.2 million square kilometers (463,000 square miles), an area one-seventh the size of Brazil, with two-thirds of it lying in Argentina and the rest spread over Uruguay and the southern tip of Brazil. It’s home to more than 12,500 wildlife species, representing 9% of Brazilian biodiversity

It’s also considered one of the most altered biomes on the planet. Over the past five decades, the native vegetation has been rapidly cleared for vast monocultures of soy, rice and eucalyptus, leaving just 43% of the Pampas’s original vegetation intact.

Research and conservation in the region are often overshadowed by efforts to protect forests like the Amazon and the Atlantic Forest, which are deemed more valuable, experts say.

“The Pampas has been somewhat forgotten. The idea that a grassland is complex and biodiverse is something strange for a lot of people,” Gerhard Overbeck, vegetation ecologist and professor of botany department at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, told Mongabay.

“[Society], including decision-makers and politicians, has a big forestry bias in conservation, seeing diverse environments, such as forests, [as] more deserving of protection.”

With its habitat dwindling to small pockets of vegetation, Muñoa’s Pampas cat is increasingly exposed to human-associated threats, including from domestic dogs, retaliation for preying on poultry, and being struck by motor vehicles. All of these push the cat closer to extinction.

“When there are such few individuals, any death can represent a large percentage of loss,” Mazim said.

Road sign encouraging road users to reduce speed in the feline’s habitat.
Road kill is a serious issue for the Muñoa’s pampas cat population. Road signs are aimed at encouraging road users to reduce speed in the feline’s habitat. (Image courtesy of Felipe Peters at Wild Cats of Pampa Conservation Project.)

Saving Muñoa’s Pampas cat is both critical for the species itself and to protect the Pampas biome. “Conserving small cats is important for biodiversity as they play unique roles in maintaining ecosystem balance,” Wong said. “They regulate prey populations, control pest species, and contribute to ecosystem dynamics and resilience.

“Small cat presence indicates a healthy ecosystem, and their disappearance can lead to cascading effects on other species and ecosystem functions,” he added.

Saving the species

A rewilding project could boost Muñoa’s Pampas cat numbers to protect it from extinction, but it’s a complicated process.

“We’re talking about a species for which there is no information except that it is in critical danger of extinction,” Augusto Distel, a biologist from Rewilding Argentina, told Mongabay.

“The first thing we must do is find the animal to begin studying it and be able to propose captures and placement of satellite collars.”

In Brazil, researchers are exploring the idea of returning to extensive cattle ranching — a practice used for centuries in the Pampas before intensive crop farming. Unlike the latter, ranching preserves and maintains much of the original habitat.

This time around, the idea is to focus on preserving the specific natural habitat that Muñoa’s Pampas cat typically lives in.

For this to work, however, it must guarantee an income for rural landowners, “otherwise there will be no justification for maintaining the fields given the greater profitability generated by [growing] soybeans,” Mazim said.

One way of making extensive cattle ranching more profitable is to certify beef produced on native grassland as being “green” or “ecological,” Mazim said, which would give it added value.

Yet switching from croplands to extensive cattle ranching isn’t an easy transition.

A 2018 study found that cropland can yield up to 29% more profit than cattle ranching in the Pampas biome, meaning soy is far more lucrative than beef. “There is currently a lack of public policies that support extensive livestock farming,” Overbeck said.

Experts are also exploring the possibility of captive breeding of the cats until their numbers can recover, a process called ex situ management. But there are no Muñoa’s Pampas cats currently in captivity in Brazil, and attempts to breed individuals in Uruguay have proved unsuccessful.

“The creation of an ex situ breeding program is urgently needed. Even if we lose the species in the wild, we can’t let it become extinct,” Mazim said. “The Muñoa’s Pampas cat can no longer save itself; it needs help from people.”

This article was originally published by Mongabay.

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