Jan. 16 (UPI) -- The number of a güiña wildcats in Chile continues to decline, but new research suggests human predation and deforestation aren't the cause.
According to a new study by scientists at the University of Kent in England, habitat fragmentation is the cat species' gravest threat.
The güiña was listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1996. There are estimated to be fewer than 10,000 güiña cats currently living in Chile.
Because the elusive cat is known to attack livestock and perceived by farmers and ranchers as a nuisance, many conservationists assumed retaliatory killings and habitat destruction were the species' chief threat.
But new analysis by ecologists, using surveys, as well as data from camera trap and remote-sensing technologies, suggests the species is surprisingly resilient to deforestation. Scientists determined that large swatch of agricultural land are suitable to the cat. Often, large farms featured sizable tracts of unplanted land, which provide food and shelter to the wildcats.
Surveys revealed that fewer than 10 percent of farmers and ranchers have killed a güiña over the last 10 years.
The findings -- published this week in the Journal of Applied Ecology -- suggest the breakup of larger farms into smaller farms is the greatest threat to the güiña.
"Land subdivision and fragmentation have a far bigger impact on güiña survival," Nicolas Galvez, who now lectures at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, said in a news release. "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."
Galvez and his colleagues say conservationists must work with the owners and operators of large farms to ensure the güiña isn't adversely affected by further fragmentation.