Habitat fragmentation 'bigger threat to Chile’s güiña wildcat than persecution by humans'

| 16th January 2018
A güiña wildcat

A güiña wildcat - new research suggests the main threat to the wildcat is land fragmentation. 

British Ecological Society
The forest living güiña wildcat in Chile has a reputation for attacking livestock, and so it has been assumed that its declining population was due to human persecution. But new research suggests the real cause is habitat fragmentation. The ground breaking study will also help us support other wild carnivores, reports BRENDAN MONTAGUE

Land subdivision and fragmentation have a far bigger impact on güiña survival. This is because there is a higher risk of human interaction and persecution in areas where there are more farms...

Habitat fragmentation and the subdivision of large farms into smaller ones are the biggest threats facing the güiña wildcat in Chile, research by conservationists at the University of Kent has found.

The güiña has been in decline for many years, with its population estimated to be fewer than 10,000 individuals, and it has been listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 1996.

However, the forest living cat is surprisingly resilient when it comes to deforestation - and even direct killing by people as retaliation for lost livestock, according to findings published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Higher risk

The güiña has a reputation for attacking livestock and is therefore unpopular with rural inhabitants in the region. It had been assumed, therefore, that a major threat to the future of the güiña was human persecution, coupled with extensive farming and logging that has seen its habitat reduced by almost 70 percent since 1970.

But the researchers working on the latest study, led by Nicolás Gálvez studying at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), found that the güiña is remarkably adaptable to forest loss. This finding is based on a series of questionnaires, camera trap data and remote-sensed images. 

The team found that large, intensive agricultural areas are actually well suited for the güiña and should not be dismissed as poor quality habitat. This is because there are often unfarmed areas that provide refuge, food resources and suitable conditions for rearing young.

Dr Nicolás Gálvez, now a lecturer at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, said: “Land subdivision and fragmentation have a far bigger impact on güiña survival.

"This is because there is a higher risk of human interaction and persecution in areas where there are more farms, a greater pressure on natural resources through increased timber extraction and livestock grazing, and even competition for food from domestic animals kept as pets.”

Species survival

Professor Zoe Davies, from DICE at Kent, said: “Notably, though, while the risk of a güiña being killed by a human is higher in more densely populated farming areas, our questionnaires indicate that only 10 percent of the rural inhabitants have killed a güiña over the last decade. This suggests that persecution is much less of a threat to their survival than the subdivision of farms.”

The researchers have suggested that farmers with large properties are key stakeholders in the conservation of this species and should be at the centre of any conservation interventions that aim to protect existing land where the güiña is usually found.

The findings also highlight a framework that can be used to spatially match social and ecological data which could help with conservation efforts for other similar small to medium-sized carnivores in other parts of the world. The framework provides a clearer understanding of how habitat loss, land fragmentation and human interactions affect species survival.

Nicolás Gálvez, Gurutzeta Guillera-Arroita, Freya St John, Elke Schüttler, David Macdonald and Zoe Davies (2018). 'A spatially integrated framework for assessing socio-ecological drivers of carnivore decline', is published in Journal of Applied Ecology on 16 January 2018.

Other academic institutions involved in the research were: the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and the university´s Centre for Local Development (CEDEL-UC), University of Melbourne, Bangor University, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (wildCRU) at University of Oxford.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist and tweets at @EcoMontague. 

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