One Click to Understand Patagonia’s Pumas

By Nicolás Lagos
Conservation Scientist, Panthera Puma Program

Puma late afternoon

Nowadays, almost everyone has a photographic camera. Either integrated into their cell phone or through specialized devices, almost every traveler has the choice to freeze their favorite moments during their journeys and share it with friends, family or their virtual community.  

Specialized wildlife photographic tours are in high demand. People around the globe are traveling thousands of miles to visit remote places to marvel at and photograph their favorite species in their natural habitats — whales, tigers, flamingos, bears, elephants, lions and, of course, pumas. Since the turn of the century, photographers, film crews and tourists have travelled to the southern tip of South America, on the cold, windy and remote steppes of Patagonia. Here roams the lion of the Andes: the puma. 

Before my first time in Torres del Paine in 2016, I had worked with pumas and other carnivores for almost 10 years in different regions of Chile, and only had the luck to see a puma once. The sighting was only a glimpse, but recorded forever in my memories. Meanwhile, I walked through far-off stretches of the Andes — tracks, feces or photographic captures taken from remote cameras were the closest I came to pumas.

Torres del Paine landscape
During a dramatic sunset, Torres del Paine massif get colored by purples and pinks.

Then I came to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. This is a unique place, where glaciers meet the sea and the mountains host dramatic landscapes where pumas roam wild and free in a place which may house one of the highest densities of the species throughout its distribution. In this place, pumas slowly started to transform from a species into individuals right in front of my eyes. After spending several months in the field, every sighting became a name: Hermana, La Roca, Dark, Rupestre, Petaca, Raya, Blinka. All of these pumas we could easily recognize, with their own personality, routines and expressions, who made me connect with them in a special way. Having the luck to spend thousands of hours with different individuals changed the way I interact with them. It was a transition from a scientific eye towards a more familiar one. 

Puma stretching
A puma stretches after a resting, preparing for its daily activity.

The daily routine when sighting pumas in Torres del Paine involves becoming one of them for a day (or several days). Since the species usually concentrates its daily activity around dusk and dawn, you should wake up before the first ray of light and head back after sunset, wandering around with the help of binoculars, good mountain gear and patience. Sometimes, you need to walk or drive several miles before having any luck. Andean condors and guanacos (the puma’s main prey) help you during the journey, alerting you to the presence of a puma nearby. Weather in Patagonia is no friend. Quiet days are not common: strong winds, snow and heavy rains are part of the package. But patience always rewards. Every sighting invited me to be part of a world I’d never imagined being part of, joining pumas to rest, hunt, play and fight.

Rainbow over puma
A rainbow covers a young puma during its resting time.

I’ve always had my scientific eye with me. My notebook, GPS and inquisitive look have joined me during these journeys. In that vein, puma sightings are contributing to scientific knowledge and opening new opportunities to the study of the species in the region. We’re now gaining insights about their social lives, their reproductive behavior and foraging behavior, and these are only a couple of examples of what Patagonia can share with the scientific community and the world. A new window into puma behavior and ecology has been opened.

Now, puma sightings in Chilean Patagonia are becoming more common, opening new touristic opportunities for local ranches close to Torres del PaineEstancia Laguna Amarga and Fundación Cerro Guido are two examples of how puma tourism can become a business opportunity, allowing people around the globe to experience firsthand the new scientific literature on pumas.

Puma in the snow
After a long nap in the snow, a young puma assesses its surroundings.

Now, as I continue wandering and studying pumas, I see how Patagonia’s vast steppes are becoming the stage for a new generation of knowledge on pumas, and hopefully helping for the cat’s long-term conservation. 

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