In March of 2016, local residents from the town of Patacamaya, situated in the La Paz Department in Bolivia, found a stray feline in the middle of a community soccer field. The cat was double the size of a house cat with unique markings. Suspecting that it was some kind of a wildcat, the group managed to trap it into a bird cage before handing it over to local authorities. The local authorities quickly alerted the Police of Forest and Environment (POFOMA) about the incident, and they in turn reached out to the La Paz Departmental government (GADLP) for help. On March 15th, the cat was relocated to the Municipal Zoo of La Paz City (Zoologico Municipal Vesty Pakos) where zoo staff could evaluate it properly and plan for its subsequent release.
During this time, Lilian Villalba, co-coordinator of the Andean Cat Alliance (AGA) received a call from a colleague at the Wildlife Conservation Society–Bolivia who told her about the incident and their suspicion that the wildcat might be an Andean cat. Stunned, Lilian contacted the biologist of the GADLP to confirm this. Through the aid of a photograph, she was able to identify that the cat was indeed an Andean cat, a male juvenile that the zoo staff had named Jacobo, short for the cat’s scientific name, the Leopardus jacobita. Lilian immediately set out to see Jacobo in person. For her and her colleague and fellow co-coordinator at AGA, Rocio Palacios, this was an unprecedented event. Studying the Andean cat had been and continued to be a pursuit of commitment, for Andean cats are notoriously elusive subjects. To their knowledge, there had only been ten recorded sightings of Andean cats in over 25 years.
Upon arrival at the zoo, Lilian did a quick inspection and learned that Jacobo was indeed wild and had not been raised in captivity. The biggest indication that Jacobo was wild, besides his trepidation around humans, was that he rejected the meat the staff provided him, even though he was malnourished and certainly hungry, instead preferring to catch his prey himself.
An inter-institutional committee comprised of various local and international organizations, including AGA, was immediately organized in order to plan and execute Jacobo’s safe release back to the wild while keeping with the IUCN guidelines. Working closely together, the committee ensured that Jacobo was able to retain his natural instincts to hunt by keeping his interaction with people to a minimum. In the ensuing weeks, blood samples were collected from him and tested to ensure that he was healthy enough to return to his habitat. This was paramount both to ensure that he did not suffer from any diseases and that he would not pass any infectious diseases on to other animals in the wild. Given that an Andean cat had never been in this sort of captive situation before, the committee was able to obtain rare information about Jacobo that normally they would never be close enough to an Andean cat to get. They closely monitored Jacobo through cameras which enabled the team to study his habits and behaviors in captivity.
Five months later, once Jacobo had put on enough weight, weighing at 5½ kilos, the committee deemed him well enough to travel. They began the long process of prepping him for his release. Jacobo’s road to freedom had finally begun. The team made only one stop prior to his release, and that was to outfit him with a radio collar with a GPS tracker (facilitated by AGA’s Argentinian staff), to better able AGA to monitor his future movements. Finally, on a cold and windy Saturday afternoon in August, Jacobo was taken to the Sajama National Park where he was released. Since then, AGA was able to successfully monitor Jacobo’s movements for almost a month, when suddenly he traveled so far into the Andes that he was no longer able to be tracked. Thanks to the efforts of AGA and all the organizations involved, brave little Jacobo has finally found his way home.
Jacobo on release day, being set free at the Sajama National Park