Meet the güiña - a six-pound 'mystery cat' vulnerable to extinction

Tiptoeing through scrubby woodlands and fern-rich rainforests in Chile and a sliver of Argentina is a tiny feline called the güiña. Half the size of a house cat, with a bottlebrush tail and a cartoon-cute face striped with black, the güiña holds the record for the smallest wildcat in the Americas. The güiña, named Pikumche, marks the 10,000 animal in National Geographic’s Photo Ark, a quest by photographer Joel Sartore to document every species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries around the world. “Ten thousand is a big number—it represents a little bit of light in the tunnel of us finishing the project within 10 to 15 years,” says Sartore, who hopes his photographs will motivate the public to care about the extinction crisis before it’s too late. “I feel like people are paying attention now.” As with many members of the Photo Ark, the güiña, which comes in two subspecies, is considered vulnerable to extinction. For his milestone photo, Sartore traveled to what’s likely the only place on Earth that has captive güiñas: Fauna Andina, a licensed wildlife reserve and rehabilitation center in south- central Chile. The low repetitive noises are likely expressions of pleasure or excitement, according to Vidal Mugica’s observations, while the meow announces Pikumche’s presence to the seven other güiñas at Fauna Andina. That’s because the cat’s vocalizations add to scientists’ limited understanding of the animal; even its population numbers and basic biology, such as mating and reproduction, remain enigmatic.  Güiñas are one of eight species of Latin American small wildcat and are most closely related to ocelots, a better-known species with a much bigger range—including parts of the southern United States. Retribution killings are less frequent these days, but güiñas still die as a result of attacks by free-ranging dogs, rodenticide poisoning, and car collisions. In partnership with the government, she’s designing wildlife corridors so the animals can move between forest patches and is engaging with local companies to develop cat-friendly land-use policies. Sanderson praised Sartore’s dedication to photographing so many small rare wildcats—from Iberian lynx to African golden cats. “He waited for 10,000 to put the güiña on top.” Says Hunter, “it’s great that this [Photo Ark] project has brought such a significant profile to these little-appreciated species.” It’s ironic and sad, he adds, that so many people cherish their house cats yet know next to nothing about their untamed kin on every continent but Antarctica.