Silhouette illustration of a small cat

Tracking Small Cats in Bolivian Amazon

Big cats get more attention, but researchers are finding smaller cat species have an equally important role to play.

Research on smaller cat species has been much scarcer than that of big cats, but it is no less important, says Amy Zuckerwise ’20 MESc, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Bobcat Program. Zuckerwise and Courtney Anderson ’20 MESc spent a summer studying smaller cats in the upper Amazon River basin in northwestern Bolivia for their YSE graduate studies.

To get to their field site in Madidi National Park, one of the largest protected areas in the world, they had to help push a boat upriver for miles to maneuver around rocks. The region is one of the most biologically diverse on Earth, with rainforests, montane dry forests, rivers, and glacier-covered peaks.

Working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the two students tracked mostly ocelots and jaguars, analyzing cat activity in different areas of the region, including the national park as well as indigenous communities and tourist areas.

“I was expecting to see a gradient of activity, with most cats in the national park, somewhat less in the tourist areas, and then the least in the indigenous territory where people are living and moving around. But it seems cats choose what habitat they want and are coexisting with human activities pretty well,” says Anderson. “There are a lot of horrible stories of people being removed from their lands in order to create protected areas, but this means that a completely people-less landscape is not necessary for wildlife to be successful.”

Zuckerwise’s work with local animal trackers from the communities of Tsimané-Mostene and Tacana found that there was no difference between the probability of detecting ocelots using tracking surveys based on indigenous knowledge and using camera traps.

Cats choose what habitat they want and are coexisting with human activities pretty well.”

Courtney Anderson’20 MESc

“In the past, this type of indigenous knowledge was often overlooked by scientific researchers, but recently the conservation community has started to recognize its value,” Zuckerwise says.

Continued research with local communities, says Os Schmitz, senior associate dean of research and Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at YSE, is vital to the survival of the cats.

“We can think more creatively about how to share the landscape,” he says, “and that’s really what a lot of the research is about.”

From the Spring 2021 Canopy

Canoy magazine cover

Canopy — Spring 2021

Fanning Out Across the Globe in Search of Big Cats, and other stories.