This spring, Panthera researchers descended to the “end of the world” to study some of the most elusive wild cats on the planet. At the beginning of March 2020, five Panthera team members, including Puma Program Director Mark Elbroch and Small Cat Program Director Wai-Ming Wong converged from different corners of the western hemisphere on Punta Arenas, Chile. Our goal was to use advanced camera-trap technology to gain a window into the wilds of Patagonia.
This trip was a merging of two different projects united by their overlapping camera trapping methods. Along the way, Panthera’s Small Cats Program joined those of us from the Puma Program to study the only local small cat, the Geoffroy’s Cat (Leopardus geoffroyi). Together, Dr. Elbroch and Dr. Wong’s teams set out to cooperatively collect 80 cameras from one grid spread across the open Patagonian steppe, while setting another 80 in the forests and Andean areas of Torres Del Paine National Park and surrounding ranches.
After collecting field supplies, we made our way to Refugio Laguna Amarga, a puma tourism ranch on the edge of the Patagonian wilderness. Over the last few years, Panthera’s Puma Program has built relationships with this and other tourism ranches in the area, as well as national park officials (CONAF). These relationships are mutually beneficial; Panthera is working with the ranches to help construct an ethical standard for puma tourism, while at the same time allowing us opportunities to set the many cameras needed to estimate puma densities. We then share the data we collect with the landowners.
We traversed the entire area in a grid, always under the gaze of the three granite towers collectively called Cordillera Paine, which first put Torres Del Paine on the tourism map. Everyday evidence of the many pumas that call this land home lay at our feet: track lines and scent marking scrapes spanned different elevations and habitat. Each day we walked many miles, setting up and taking down cameras as we went. At the end of our first day, we had an amazing in-person encounter with one of these beautiful big cats.
After receiving a tip about a female with two kittens feeding on a guanaco kill right off the road, we excitedly went to see for ourselves. It did not take us long to locate her, yet, despite her close proximity to the road, busses full of tourists whizzed by without a clue what they passed. We stood a respectful distance away, in awe of the tiny 6-7 week-old kittens moving between their sleepy mother and her kill. Luckily for us, this sighting was just the beginning. As we would come to understand, Patagonia is truly a “land of lions and glaciers”, both of which seemingly abound.
Later after returning from a backpacking trip, I learned everyone had their own puma encounter story. Dr. Wong had spotted a female named Rupestre, a cat familiar to guides in the area, relaxing with her kittens under a rocky overhang. Mauricio Cifuentes, a Master’s student at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, working with us based out of Santiago, watched a pair of pumas courting and mating right in front of him. Dr. Elbroch and Puma Program Conservation Scientist Omar Ohrens both had their own encounters as well. The following day, I got lucky again myself when I nearly walked into a female puma with her two young kittens. They leaped forth from a bed hidden by bushes just 15 meters from me. The two kittens bolted while the female and I held each other’s gaze for several seconds before she walked off, joining them.
Of the cameras we pulled, many contained images of pumas, including several exceptionally stunning captures. One camera, from the steppe habitat grid, contained images of two different Geoffroy’s cats. This was a first for our cameras and a pleasant surprise. This small cat is known to live in densely covered forested areas, making their detection in this open rocky habitat that much more surprising. Six months from now we hope to collect many more small cat images from this new forest habitat grid.
As an added bonus, and thanks to Dr. Elbroch’s relationship with Jackson Hole Ecotours, we were even able to tag along on one of their puma tourism trips. Here we were lucky enough to watch three females and their kittens over three days. This entire trip was truly special to all of us. We not only accomplished our objectives just before a pandemic was declared, but we were also able to stand in awe of the animal we dedicate ourselves too, yet rarely get to see.