In search of the wild (III)

Pumas in Patagonia

Text and photos: Andoni Canela

In this third stage of the journey undertaken by Andoni Canela across the six continents of the planet (Looking for the wild), we travelled to the southernmost region of America, Patagonia, to relive with him his encounter and experiences with one of the most distinguished inhabitants: the puma.

The puma is a smart, agile and very strong cat. In many parts of Latin America they call it Lion or ‘Mountain lion’. Pumas live throughout the American continent, from Alaska to the southern Patagonia. They are the great felines of the mountains along with their Asian cousin, the snow leopard. Pumas can be found in different types of forests, rain-forests, mountains, semi-desert areas, wetlands or grasslands. For this reason, they are considered the most widely distributed mammals in America.

The main threat faced by pumas, who have no natural predators, is the destruction of their habitat and hunting by humans. In the eastern half of USA they were completely extinct due to over-hunting by settlers of European origin, except in the state of Florida. In some areas, especially those where they coexist with human population and livestock farms (where they are considered a threat to their flocks), they are greatly threatened. In more isolated areas, the puma population is more stable.

A place of contrasts

This stage of the journey unfolds through Patagonia, mainly in Chilean territory, searching for the puma. Days pass by in the Torres del Paine National Park. The icy wind down the glaciers in the early hours of the morning makes it unbearably cold. This is how many summer days in Torres del Paine start. However, it soon starts to become hot and the wind stops. Some condors (Andean vultures) fly overhead. They fly up and down taking advantage of updrafts from wind currents and it seems incredible that the world’s largest flying birds are so light.

The puma also seeks shelter from the sun on the rocks or in a forest, disappearing from our view, for very long periods at times. Sometimes, after 12 or 13 long hours waiting, usually as dusk falls, he graces us with his presence again. Sometimes for five minutes and…then, he disappears again until the next day.

This Park, established in 1959 and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978, has an area of approximately 2,400 km2 (more than the Biscay area). Especially renowned are the peaks that give the Park its name: The Torres del Paine, three towers between 2,600m and 2,850m in height modelled by the action of the glaciers in this area.

A strategist hunter

A group of guanacos, wild South American camelids, rest with their young. The light is soft against the backdrop of the grey mountains of the Great Paine, with their impressive majesty. Less than 300 metres high on a hill, a puma sits and observes. He is a young puma that inhabits this territory. He is downwind and the guanacos cannot smell him. He remains motionless. He crawls close to the ground, advancing slowly. He makes a slow stealthy approach. Each time the herbivore lowers his head to graze, the puma moves on a few metres. One, two…three seconds and he stays still, as if frozen. The guanaco raises his head, looks around him for a moment and lowers his head again. The puma moves on three or four metres further. And so on until the puma places himself at the right distance.

He has calculated well, the prey has not seen, heard or smelled him. The guanaco puts his head down for the last time and, go! the puma stars the race: a breakneck speed sprint to catch his prey. The guanaco is then aware and tries to escape but it is too late. The puma’s strength and speed help him to sink his claws into the hindquarters of the animal and then clamps his jaws.

The puma keeps it firmly caught and after a few seconds, the guanaco is bound to fall to the ground. However, the guanaco is too big for the young feline and tries desperately to force the puma to loosen his grip. He has escaped this time.

Unlike the African lion, pumas live and hunt alone. They use their powerful bodies, especially gifted for jumping and sprinting, to bring down their victims. Here in Patagonia, their principal prey is the guanaco and, in early summer, they feed on chulengos, the cubs that put up much less resistance to an attack. In other regions further north they have other preferred preys like, for example, the deer. And, in all cases, they supplement their diet with smaller preys: hares, rodents, birds… Sometimes they also attack nearby cattle, which has led to their being in constant conflict with humans.

Protection versus farmers’ interests

The Pumas living within the boundaries of Torres del Paine National Park have some kind of safe passage to ensure their survival. However, the persecution of pumas in the nearby livestock farms is very similar to that faced by wolves in Spain. This happens in Chile and still more in Argentina. And for the same reason: attacks on livestock. The fact that pumas play a key ecological role in their ecosystem controlling guanaco populations goes unnoticed. In large livestock farms, the most important thing is to protect sheep from puma attacks or face the challenge of pasture competition from guanacos. In theory, the fewer the pumas and guanacos, the better for farmers, although this equation is not as easy as it seems.

During my journey, I witnessed how farmers tried to protect their flock from pumas and also how there are pioneering actions with mastiff dogs (with great potential to defend sheep), and the relationships between pumas, livestock and guanacos, their main prey, are being studied. I also heard first-hand stories about puma hunting in which different- and illegal- ways (dogs, poison, different types of traps, etc.) are used. But the solution is proving not to lie in the (illegal) hunting of pumas and guanacos.