Images and Article by Jeff Parker
A large male puma makes his way down the hill to the kill we’ve spent the last hour watching. For the next 45 minutes, we have the privilege of observing the interactions between this adult male, a female, and two 1-year-old siblings as the pumas work at consuming a guanaco killed the day before.
The biologist with us at the photo shoot—a big cat specialist—had never seen such behavior before. Most research has been conducted on pumas in North America, where adult males such as this one—likely the mate of the female and the father of the two cubs—don’t hang out with, and especially don’t dine with, others. This behavior in South America may be because the ecological fitness of the habitat minimizes the sort of competitive forces we see in more northern areas.
Of course, there is a lot of wild puma behavior that has not been observed. Many people live their whole lives in cougar country without ever seeing one at all. And, when they are spotted, it’s typically a fleeting glimpse. Researchers generally depend on tracking collared animals or camera traps. The secretive nature of these cats is legendary.
At any other time and on any other trip this would have been the pinnacle experience. However, on this trip, it’s just the latest of many such experiences. Over the past few days we have observed and photographed four other pumas including a pair of 6-7 month old kittens. We viewed a variety of behavior including kittens playing and an adult stalking. These are wild, free-ranging pumas going about their daily lives – not photographed in captivity. A year ago I would not have believed this was possible. At this location it’s not only possible, but virtually guaranteed.
So, how were we able to witness so much activity? A new conservation program in southern Chile, which focuses on compensating land owners for access to their property made this achievable.
Most of our puma prowling took place on a 17,000-acre private ranch adjacent to Torres del Paine National Park. Due to a recent rule change, the park no longer allows off-trail hiking in pursuit of pumas. Thankfully, our local contact already had an agreement in place, which allowed us access to the ranch where we can roam as we wish. This is not only good for us – it is also good for the pumas. By collecting a fee for access, the landowner has an incentive to allow pumas to remain on his property without persecution.
One main reason for puma persecution is that the land is used primarily for sheep ranching. While pumas mainly prey on guanacos, they will also eat sheep. Unfortunately, they often don’t stop at a single ewe; biologists aren’t quite sure why, but the cats often kill many more sheep than they intend to eat.
But wildlife viewing and photography tours, like my Pumas & Peaks in Patagonia Photo Tour, include ranch access fees, which go directly to the landowner and provide tangible proof of the value of pumas. Some ranches bordering the national park have even agreed to remove all sheep from the land for a trial period in order to give photo tourism a try.
Puma concolor is the scientific name of the most widespread native mammal in the Americas. The cats likely also wear the highest number of common names, including: Mountain lion, cougar, panther, catamount, painter, puma, leon. But, whatever you call them, pumas are targeted for destruction virtually throughout their range.
California, where pumas are completely protected, and my home state of Texas, where the felines can be killed at any time, exhibit the extremes. Other states tend to the middle with several offering a mountain lion hunting season. Elsewhere in the Americas, such as Brazil or Chile, it may be illegal to kill a puma, but enforcement is minimal. Consequently, the cats remain elusive, and they are often killed if humans spot them. And, even in those places where cougars are protected, the habitat and terrain provide such fleeting glances of the animals that photographic opportunities are virtually nil.
Now, thanks to landowner cooperation, lack of eradication, and the open terrain of the Torres del Paine region, the pumas have grown accustomed to observation (as long as it remains a respectful distance away). The result? While the hike to the den overlook site can prove challenging (typically a hilly 1-2 miles each way, bearing photo equipment and braving Patagonian winds), once in place the photography—and the “awe” factor—comes easy.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be deleting images of mountain lions because they are just not quite sharp enough – I would have been thrilled just to see one at all.