As a professor of environmental conservation at Finger Lakes Community College, I strive to incorporate as much firsthand knowledge and experience into my courses as possible. I believe it is a particularly effective teaching method and has made me a lifelong learner in the process.
When I taught conservation law classes, I attended public hearings and rode along with officers in the field. To expand my wildlife knowledge, I regularly volunteer on research projects and spend a considerable amount of time watching and photographing animals. However, when it came time to teach about mountain lions, my firsthand experiences extended only to tracking. I often used the line that although I had never seen a mountain lion in the wild, I was certain that wild mountain lions had seen me. I was determined to change that.
After considerable online research, I booked a trip to Chile in December of 2017 to spend an entire week looking for mountain lions (or pumas as they are typically called in South America) in a place that is generally considered the most reliable site in the world to see them. Torres del Paine National Park is in southern Chile and is worth a visit even if one has no interest in wildlife. Its stark mountains provided a scenic beauty that fed my eyes and soul each day. Actually, I wasn’t staying in the park. Rather, I spent the week on a large private ranch, or estancia, on the border. This way, I had the advantage of the park’s beauty but none of its restrictions on travel. Within the park, one must stay on the roads or the trails. On the ranch, I was free to travel wherever the wildlife took me.
My guide, Dania, the only female puma guide in all of Chile, grew up on this land and seemed to know every inch of it. Her father and uncle inherited it from their father and initially raised sheep as had been done there for generations. But the men soon found other opportunities and passions. Situated at the entrance to the national park, there was an opportunity for a restaurant and lodging. The land was healthy, for the family had wisely kept sheep numbers in check. They avoided the temptation of larger and larger flocks which would provide short-term financial gain, but corresponding long-term problems that accompany over grazing. This respect for the land extended to the native animals as well, including the puma. Many sheep ranchers despise pumas because they prey on the sheep; some ranchers even kill them illegally. As Dania told me, her father and uncle came to love the pumas more than the sheep and transitioned from ranchers to guides. The estancia became a refugio for wildlife.
With the sheep reduced to a token flock of about a hundred, the native guanacos began to flourish. Guanacos are wild relatives of the llama and alpaca. Weighing in at 200 pounds and standing up to 6 feet tall, an adult guanaco is formidable prey. If attacked, they have a powerful long-legged kick that can deter a predator. And in the Patagonia region of Chile, the only predator large enough to be a threat is the puma.
I arrived at the ranch mid-afternoon, with just enough time to drop my gear in the lodge and race back to the vehicle for a quick drive before the sun set over the brush-covered hills. We saw herds of guanaco everywhere. In fact, that evening we saw just about every species of mammal the ranch had to offer except puma. Hairy armadillos, South American gray fox, guanacos, hog-nosed skunks and introduced European hares were all new and exciting for me, but I just wasn’t going to be able to enjoy it all fully until I saw my first puma. Dania assured me that with a whole week of searching, it was not possible to miss the puma but I learned long ago there is no such thing as a guarantee when wild animals are involved. I went to bed that night wrestling with my excitement and apprehensions. I looked out my window to see the clouds had cleared and the Southern Cross was visible in the sky. I decided that regardless of the outcome of our search for puma, I was going to enjoy this strange and beautiful place. It turns out I was worried for nothing.
The next day, we started down the main road before dawn. Although pumas can be active at any time, they are most reliably encountered from dusk to dawn. Dania’s father, Tomislav, joined us that first morning, sitting in the back seat and serving as an extra set of expert eyes. In an effort to recount this first morning accurately, I have been re-reading my personal journal from the trip. Only five minutes into our drive, with the dawn just a glow on the eastern horizon, we rounded a bend in the road and Tomi erupted with a string of Spanish and excited pointing. I never heard the word “puma” but I knew it could be nothing else that evoked this response. As I franticly looked in the direction he was pointing to, I heard the word “Tres!” Sure enough, in the dim light, I saw three pumas about 60 yards away.
I took photos because I had to, not because they were going to be any good. There just wasn’t enough light. Then I heard Tomi harshly whisper, “Quatro! No. No. Cinco!” and he and Dania laughed like children opening presents on Christmas morning. I was awestruck as I watched five pumas (an adult female, her three offspring from the previous year, and a second adult female) steadily move through the brush with only occasional stops to glance in our direction. I traded my camera for my binoculars and just enjoyed the show. This particular group of pumas was regularly seen on the ranch and we encountered them one more time before the week was over.
Once the pumas were over the rise, we rushed back into the car and headed down the road and up a path in the brush in an effort to gain some high ground to relocate them. We reached a good vantage point and exited the car to scan the hillside. Instead of finding our original group, Dania quickly spied a lone male crossing the hill below us with a steady purposeful gait. Soon he was out of sight and we settled in to continue glassing the hillside. Within minutes, we were interrupted by the distant alarm cries of guanacos. This could only mean one thing.
“The guanaco is my best co-worker,” explained Dania as we jumped back into the car and sped off in a new direction. Her maxim proved true numerous times during the week. About half of the pumas we saw were first seen by the guanacos. One or more guanacos would spy a puma and sound the alarm while staring intently at the puma. Then it was up to us to locate the cat for ourselves.
We dropped down off the dirt path and onto paved road again, heading to the alarm calls we heard echoing up from the valley. We arrived to find a herd of about 40 guanacos clumped together and milling about in an agitated manner. Although they all were braying an alarm, one large male stood apart from the rest and, with each vocalization, craned his long neck forward and opened his mouth wide. He was telling us the location of a puma we still could not see in the brush. Finally, the cat raised its head and looked at us with a blood-soaked face not 50 yards away. We had interrupted her breakfast. She padded slowly away and we could see she had wet front paws to match her face. She spent some time cleaning herself in a puddle, then crossed under the road through a culvert pipe. As we watched her walk away I simply could not stop smiling. In the span of two hours, I had gone from never seeing a wild puma to seeing seven. Seven! This place truly was magic.
Nearly anywhere else, this day would have been unbelievable, but remember I traveled to this very spot for the very reason that the puma population here was large and relatively easy to see. One of the reasons for this is that there are no other large predators in Patagonia. Mountain lions in Yellowstone, for example, have to compete with other large predators such as wolves and bears. The final two ingredients that makes this specific area such a hot spot for puma-watching is the vast amount of protected land and a commitment to sustainable tourism. When this estancia was a working sheep ranch, the family took care to keep the herd sizes within the limits that could be supported by the ecosystem. More sheep would only mean less money in the long run, as they can cause damage that lasts for generations.
The same principal applies to tourists. Too many visitors to this place can pressure the pumas and change their behavior. The pumas were tolerant of humans because the encounters were benign and relatively few. The sustainable business model here was fewer visitors paying more money for a world-class experience and doing so over a long period of time. National Geographic, the BBC and others come to this ranch to shoot documentaries. I was not just having the time of my life, I was supporting good conservation on private land.
When we returned to the lodge for lunch, I collapsed on the alpaca blankets and slept like the dead. The adrenaline rush of the morning had left me drained. By mid afternoon, I was recharged and ready for more. Dania and I drove to an overlook to scan the hillside. The scene before me reminded me of the American West. A second guide and his two clients were already there and we pooled our efforts to spot a puma or two dozing in the thick vegetation. Within minutes, I spotted a puma far up the hill. Once everyone else trained their binoculars on the spot, we discovered there were three pumas in the brush. This was a known trio of subadult males and they were very tolerant of humans approaching on foot.
“Do you want to get closer?” asked Dania. Closer? To three pumas? On foot? In thick brush? “Of course,” I responded. I can honestly say there was no hesitation or fear in my mind, only excitement. We slowly made our way up the hill, losing sight of the cats due to the terrain. We arrived in the general area where we had first located them but none could be seen. Slowly, we crept forward watching and listening. Surely we were close, but visibility was limited in the tall, thick brush. Perhaps they gave us the slip. Suddenly, I heard a noise that sounded more like a bird than a cat. Dania grabbed my forearm and I turned in time to watch a puma spring up not 10 feet from us and stop. Another cat rose to our right about 30 feet away and sauntered off without making a sound. We never did see the third puma again.
I struggled to photograph the remaining puma through the thick vegetation. For decades I had dreamt of seeing this animal in the wild and failed. Now one stood looking curiously at me from a distance so close that it would not even earn me a first down in football. My hands shook with excitement. My breaths came fast and shallow. Goosebumps rose on my arms. I pressed the shutter and managed a single photo before the spell was broken and the puma was gone.
We saw pumas every single day during that week, but none of the days could match that first wild one where pumas seemed to be everywhere. I am grateful that I was able to experience that all firsthand and I am equally grateful that there are conservation-minded people like Dania and her family that make such experiences possible.