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Forecasting conservation needs for endangered fauna:integrating landscape ecology and ethnoecology to predict habitat quality for the kodkod cat (Leopardus guigna) in the Chilean temperate rainforest

Final Report Summary - KODKOD (Forecasting conservation needs for endangered fauna:integrating landscape ecology and ethnoecology to predict habitat quality for the kodkod cat (Leopardus guigna) in the Chilean temperate rainforest)

Habitat loss, alteration and fragmentation represent severe threats to biodiversity globally. Wild cats, which generally require large areas over which to forage, are particularly affected by fragmentation and human-felid conflicts. Whereas considerable research has been directed towards large carnivores, smaller more cryptic species have received comparatively little attention. The kodkod cat or guiña (Leopardus guigna) is the smallest of the Neotropical cats and has one of the most restricted distributions known for felids, occupying a narrow strip within south-central Chile and Argentina. Kodkods are classified as vulnerable by IUCN. Principal threats are habitat loss due to agricultural land use and retribution killing after attacks on poultry.

The general aim of the project was to establish an integrative socio-ecological approach for kodkod conservation. It aimed to explore the current habitat availability for this threatened species in forest remnants of private landowners in the foothills of the Andes in the Araucania Region in southern Chile. An autecological study used radio-telemetry for the first time in the northern pre-Andean distribution range in a lowland area surrounded by protected land. We radio-tracked five individuals (n=1132 locations, 3 females, 2 males) over 33-376 days to assess home ranges, habitat use, and patch selection. Through systematic monitoring with camera-traps the effects of fragmentation, habitat cover and human wildlife interactions on the probability of site occupancy was analysed: we applied single-season occupancy modelling with camera-trap data from 100 sites yielding 4,168 camera-trap days and 112 photographic sequences of kodkods. We analysed 67 scats to determine kodkod diet and explore its potential to act as a rodent controller in environmental education. A socio-ecological study provided understanding of the human environment context in which this wild cat lives. Qualitative interviews and a representative questionnaire survey with landowners and indigenous Mapuche people explored knowledge, attitudes, tolerance levels and cultural significance of kodkods. The future stakeholders’ perceptions were assessed through school visits during which drawings of the kodkod cat were collected as well as through legends and local anecdotes gathered as homework in the children’s family context. Finally, we arranged a stakeholder workshop with the principal environmental groups from the civil society of the region as well as green public and governmental agencies to work on an Action Plan for Kodkod Conservation. We closed the project with a book launch of a bio-cultural book (KOZKOZ, bilingual in Spanish-Mapudungun) containing narratives and illustrations of kodkods as created by the pupils themselves in our school visits, for use in regional schools.

Within the framework of the autecological study, radio-tracking revealed that kodkods have permanent territories within a fragmented landscape bordering continuous protected forests. Through a use-availability analysis we found that kodkods had highly specialised ecological niches within forest edges, they were close to water and did not avoid housing. With generalised linear mixed models we discovered that kodkods selected elongated patches with less core area (32% versus 68% of random patches). Median patch sizes were 102 ha. These findings are in line with the results from the camera-traps. High perimeter-to-area ratios and moderate amounts of forest remnants yielded the highest estimated site occupancies. Occupancy also increased near buildings. Fragmentation thus triggered an edge behaviour of this cat, probably due to a higher prey availability (rodents), and shelter. Kodkod prey was based on the most abundant rodent species in the study area (81% of the scats consisted of hair). Principally, kodkods consumed Oligoryzomys longicaudatus, the long-tailed pygmy rice rat, and principal reservoir host of hantavirus which causes the deadly Hantavirus syndrome. Within the framework of the socio-ecological study, the qualitative semi-structured interviews with landowners (n=30) revealed explanations for low and high tolerance levels towards this conflictive wild cat. Negative attitudes resulted from insignificance in the Mapuche culture and the assumption that kodkods were only feral domestic cats. A perceived rarity of the species as well as information that kodkod cats helped to control rodents (utilitarian value) shifted the interviewees’ behavioural intentions and attitudes towards higher tolerance levels. The majority of local anecdotes (n=49) transmitted negative values (i.e. dominionistic, negativistic); also symbolic or spiritual references had mostly negative connotations (e.g. being an indicator of bad luck). In general, the kodkod’s cryptic way of life seems to reflect its less intensive and more mystic presence in people’s perceptions, thus being a species of particular challenge for conservation programs. This is supported by the fact that chicken-stealing is “out of date” as chicken losses within the last year had only been experienced by 5% of chicken holders (n=199 informants). We also quantitatively measured which factors influenced tolerance, calculated as a score from the accepted distance of a kodkod cat to the participant’s house (spatial tolerance) and how many chicken losses per year the participant would tolerate before eliminating a kodkod (predation tolerance). Through generalized linear modelling we revealed that a higher education level, low perceived predation costs and a high valorisation of kodkods positively affected the tolerance towards them. With regard to the younger generation, we showed that children had diverse attitudes towards kodkod cats. Children’s kodkod drawings (n=200) did not only reveal contra-cat attitudes, but also positive attitudes to even pro-active cat attitudes containing moralistic messages to protect them.

We conclude that this vulnerable forest specialist is capable to establish permanent territories in a fragmented landscape and adapt to new hunting grounds (the fragment edges). But we also highlight that source-sink dynamics can play a role in this setting, i.e. it is possible that we observed a sink population, maintained by immigration from the adjacent national parks. The vicinity to houses may yield into an ecological trap for this species, augmenting the risks of human-wildlife conflicts and attacks of domestic dogs. We may identify three main barriers to conservation identified for kodkods, most probably also valid for other conflictive carnivore species: (1) inconspicuousness of and missing contact possibility with the animal which favours the willingness to protect aposematic animals over cryptic animals, (2) a diminished or missing cultural dimension of the animal which might provoke less identification with the animal, and (3) a time delay with regard to the acceptance of the real nowadays reduced predation risk of poultry by kodkods in people’s minds. Knowing about these barriers to conservation, it is possible to respect them in conservation programs. Such programs should promote the kodkod as an important consumer of hantavirus transmitting rodents.

The described research is relevant for the region’s stakeholders, such as the Chilean Agriculture and Livestock Service (SAG) in charge of the management of wildlife, the environmental department of the local municipalities, environmental NGOs such as the Fundación Condor Blanco, the Unión Communal Ambiental Pucón, the Consejo Ambiental Pucón, Ética en los bosques, and Vivero Mariman. These policymakers were the target groups of the final stakeholder workshop in which we transmitted the scientific results and elaborated a local Action Plan for Kodkod Conservation within discussion groups. As a priority, information and education had been defined as the most important steps for kodkod conservation. Here, our project contributes with innovative outreach material for schools: a puppet video relating life and problems from the perspective of a kodkod cat and a bio-cultural bilingual book telling legends and stories and illustrated by kodkod drawings created by local pupils interested in the fauna inhabiting the Chilean temperate rainforest.