The ONCILLA project was born to answer two fundamental questions regarding the current status of the oncilla in Costa Rica. In a study conducted in 2013, the authors found indications that the subspecies of oncilla present in the Talamanca Mountain Range diverges genetically from the South American subspecies. Therefore our main objective in this project is to increase the number of samples analyzed in previous studies to clarify this question. Is the Central American oncilla species really a different species? If the answer is yes, that would confer to it the special category of endemic to the Talamanca Mountain Range in the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama. Considering that its current conservation status according to IUCN is Vulnerable, an additional concern arises about this rare and unique species in the world. Will its Central American populations be under any threat? If so, its conservation category could be changed to Endangered.
The tigrina or oncilla is the smallest wild cat in all of Mesoamerica, in size it is comparable to a domestic cat, with the particularity of having a beautiful spotted coat similar to that of a jaguar, its largest cousin. As it has been affirmed by experts, this species is rare in all its distribution and is easily confused with other species like margays or ocelots. Its main prey are small vertebrates, mainly small mammals such as rats and mice.
We are currently working in collaboration with SINAC/MINAE authorities, researchers and communities surrounding the study area to determine the sites of occurrence of the species and the possible threats it faces. Since the Talamanca Mountain Range represents the largest forested area in the country, with more than 400,000 ha, the effort required to sample the entire area would be exhausting, so the knowledge of the people who have worked or live in these areas is vital. At the moment we are collecting information through interviews and surveys on sightings with photographic or physical evidence of the species to produce detailed maps of the distribution of the oncilla in the country. We have also placed camera traps in coordination with the Nai Conservation project, also of the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation, in areas that have been little explored in order to increase the sampling area.
Another important partnership of the project has been with the Skuë’ Conservation project, dedicated to the study and conservation of small mammals, since these are the main prey of this cat species. This collaboration will respond to the need of knowing which are specifically the main prey of the oncilla in the areas of occurrence, and what is the abundance and state of health of these. We have also been in contact and held meetings with institutions that house oncilla specimens in their facilities (e.g., museums and rescue centers) to gain access to them. We are still in the process of processing the respective permits with the National Commission for the Management of Biodiversity (CONAGEBIO) to begin with the collection of genetic samples both in institutions that house animals in ex-situ conditions and with the animals in wild life.
The ONCILLA project aims to establish itself as a long-term small cat conservation project in Costa Rica using the oncilla as a flagship species. The information generated in the project will be disseminated through information campaigns, talks and workshops to ensure the persistence of this species and to make it known to Costa Rican society as a unique species. The aim is also to mitigate the threats once they are identified and to monitor the populations to guarantee their persistence and that of their habitat over time.