Cougar Calculator: Counting Chile’s Cats

By Mark Elbroch
Director, Puma Program

Puma licking kitten

How do you count wild cats? In this blog, Dr. Mark Elbroch, Panthera Puma Program Director, talks about the struggles and process of helping our partners in Chilean Patagonia count pumas. The results are innovating a new future in the studies of this notoriously difficult-to-study big cat.

Whether it be the high mountains of Wyoming, the dense rain forests of western Washington, or the wind-swept grasslands of Patagonia, the first question people ask us wherever we work or support conservation partners is often, “How many pumas are there?” As innocent and important as this question is, chasing down an answer remains one of our greatest challenges.

Puma and kitten

One reason for this problem lies in the puma’s name. The Latin name for puma is Puma concolor. Concolor roughly translates to “one color,” because adult pumas lack the spots and stripes that make identifying individual animals so much easier. Researchers have already developed excellent cheap, non-invasive methods for counting species like leopards and tigers, where individuals are easy to identify, but the methods for doing so for other wildlife are still being developed and debated. Right now, puma researchers generally rely upon more expensive or more invasive techniques to identify individuals, such as marking individuals with telemetry devices or conducting genetic analysis of tissue or feces to differentiate among them. Panthera’s Puma Program team has been looking for a solution.

After years of experimentation in collaboration with partners Leona Amarga and the Corporación Nacional Forestal, the organization that oversees Chile’s National Parks, we finally shipped a box of puma scats (stool samples) to the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation in Missoula, United States, where DNA would be extracted for analysis. Like hair, saliva and blood, scat contains rich genetic information about the animals who deposit them. Our scats, unfortunately, sat months in an office in Santiago, Chile, and with every passing day, our hard work had begun to crumble and blow away. Frigid winter weather had foiled our attempts to count cats using a thermal camera mounted on a drone, and our previous attempts to gather genetic material using trained scat-detecting dogs had failed as well.

Puma with kitten 2
©angela ambrosini/panthera

Luckily for us, a new mathematical model was released that allowed for the inclusion of DNA samples that suffer deterioration. We also had camera data collected using another new experimental method with which to compare what we learned from scats. We compiled our data, consulted with statistical geniuses, and ran our models.  

After years of trying different methods, we are thrilled to share initial estimates of puma abundance for the area hosting puma tourism in the Torres del Paine UNESCO Biosphere in southern Chile in a new paper just published in Animal Conservation. We estimate that the area is home to roughly 5.1 independent pumas per 100 square kilometers (which is nearly 3x the average reported for their entire range across the Americas). No wonder film crews and photographers have been swarming the area in recent years to document the previously little-known lives of pumas. Our results make clear that Torres del Paine National Park and adjacent ranches hosting puma tourism support much higher puma densities than other areas across the Americas.

Pumas playing

While this information will unlikely solve the age-old conundrum of human-carnivore coexistence, we hope it will be a rallying point for transparent discussion about how to support local people in a region where puma populations appear to be thriving and likely increasing beyond the National Park. Like many regions of the world, Torres del Paine National Park is viewed as a source population for pumas that ultimately causes problems for people dependent upon livestock for their livelihoods. For these reasons, Panthera is also supporting Fundación Cerro Guido Conservación in implementing solutions like carnivore-deterrent LED Foxlights and sheepdogs that effectively help drive pumas away from domestic prey. Balancing growing puma tourism and current ranching practices is essential in fostering peaceful coexistence in a healthy Patagonia ecosystem. 

Learn more about pumas.