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 smallest wildcat in the Americas. Its petite stature—just under six pounds—combined with its extreme shyness and scientific obscurity means most people don’t even know it exists.Until now.The güiña, named Pikumche, marks the 10,000th 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.As with most of the planet’s 33 small wildcat species, the güiña, whose spotted fur ranges in hue from silver to russet, is “very much a mystery cat. They live in the shadows,” Sartore says. (Read more about little-known small wildcats.)For Photo Ark, Sartore has immortalized all creatures great and small—from mussels and beetles to ostriches and elephants—in more than 50 countries. He won’t stop, he says, until he photographs every one of the 15,000 captive species.“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. That’s mostly because of degradation of their 115,000 square-mile range, the smallest of any Latin American cat. The southern güiña, Leopardus guigna guigna, inhabits the dense, mossy forests of southern Chile and is smaller and darker than Leopardus guigna tigrillo, the northern güiña of central Chile’s matorral shrubland.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. Here, founder Fernando Vidal Mugica looks after güiñas that were injured in the wild, sometimes releasing them back into the forest.Pikumche, a male northern güiña and the subject of Sartore’s portrait, is a special case. Orphaned at 10 days old when a predator killed his mother, he was hand-reared at the center. Now two-and-a-half years old, he’s so habituated to people that he can’t be reintroduced to the wild. After having such a difficult start in life, “he is a very confident cat,” Vidal Mugica said in a text message. His name honors the Pikumche, a pre-Columbian native culture in what is now northern Chile, he says.Sartore also filmed video of Pikumche vocalizing, possibly the first güiña sounds ever recorded. 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.

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