We're in Chile after the successful completion of our trek in the Aysen region of Patagonia. On Feb. 28 we drove back to Balmaceda where we boarded a plane for the 1-hour flight north to Puerto Montt. The following morning we flew south to Puenta Arenas. Our final destination was Torres del Paine National Park. We visited this park back in 1991 before it had become a world-known tourist destination. Back then there were few roads, no hotels, no tour buses, no campgrounds and very few trekkers. It was a wild and remote place with the feel of truly being at the end of the Earth. We were hesitant to return knowing that so much has changed but this time our focus would be entirely different. We would not be competing with thousands of hikers to do the W Trek or Paine Circuit but instead we would be searching for pumas!
The Puma (also known as the Mountain Lion, Cougar, Panther and in my home state of Vermont, the Catamount, is the second largest cat in the New World after the Jaguar. Its range from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes of South America is the greatest of any large wild terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. We were to search for the Puma in the southern end of its distribution where they are said to be larger than their northern cousins.
We met our guide, Rodrigo, and our driver, Daniel, in the Punta Arenas Airport and started the 5-hour drive to the park. We stopped in Puerto Natales which has grown over the years but we were happy to see that Black-necked Swans still ply the waters of the sound feeding on algae.
We arrived at the park toward dusk. In 26 years much has changed but our first glimpse of the Torres del Paine remained as spectacular as ever!
We would use the Hotel Las Torres as our base. It was built in 1992 with just 8 rooms. It now has 84 rooms, a massive bar, restaurant and spa!
Early the next morning while most of the other guests were sleeping we headed out in search of Pumas. On the drive out we encountered a Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk foraging along the road.
We left the Park and met our puma tracker Roberto. He is one of about 6 trackers who work in and around Torres del Paine. It would be impossible to find these elusive cats without the expertise of the trackers. Over many years they have come to know where the cats hang out and their behaviors. Since puma tracking became more restrictive in the Park in 2015, most tours operate on the adjoining private estancias. We had been given special permission by the owners to explore Estancia Laguna Amarga. The area comprised by the northern coast of Sarmiento Lake, Laguna Amarga and Laguna Azulejo is well-known for having one of the largest concentrations of Pumas in the wild.
We drove up a dirt track to near the top of a ridge where we parked the cars and climbed to a rocky outcrop to scan for pumas. We didn't see any but spotted a lone South American Grey Fox or Chilla below. Roberto went off to scout and we checked out an old guanaco carcass being scavenged by 4 Chillas. There was a pecking order among the foxes and when one didn't wait its turn it got reprimanded by the dominant fox.
|South American Grey Foxes or Chillas|
A White-throated Caracara waited nearby for its chance to feed but the foxes didn't give the bird an opportunity.
Roberto returned and said he had found 2 fresh young guanaco kills and that the puma would return in the late afternoon. We checked out a few more areas for pumas before returning empty-handed to the hotel for lunch.
We headed out again around 3:00, met Roberto and returned to the guanaco kills. They had been scavenged by condors and their bones scattered. We waited just below a rocky outcrop while Roberto went scouting. He radioed us that he had found a puma! We rushed off to his location and sure enough a beautiful puma was walking along the base of a rocky cliff.
|1st Puma View|
We followed her to the kills where she looked disgusted at their disturbance. She didn't bother feeding but moved on. Rodrigo went ahead to photograph her and stopped to look through his viewfinder not noticing her approach to within 3 meters of him. She wasn't stalking him but he just happened to be near her path as she walked by.
We followed her for about 40 minutes taking many photos and enjoying the encounter. Roberto said she was a four year-old female that has not yet had cubs. Below we could see many hikers on a trail totally oblivious that a puma was watching them from above! We returned to the lodge thrilled with our first puma encounter.
|Hikers Below the Puma|
The next morning we went to a different area, a road along Lago Sarmiento. The road was closed due to construction but we had permission to enter. Roberto had found a fresh guanaco kill that had not been touched! We parked near it and waited and waited but only a chilla arrived to claim the prize.
|A Chilla at a Fresh Guanaco Kill|
We waited four hours at the carcass while Roberto went off to watch another section of road. Finally Roberto called to say that he found 3 pumas and we drove to his location. A female with 2 four-and-a-half-month old cubs had emerged from under a bush!
|Female Puma with 2 Cubs|
Females reach sexual maturity at the age of one-and-a-half to three years and give birth to a litter of cubs every 2 to 3 years. After about a 3-month gestation, 1 to 6 cubs (typically 2) are born. These cubs are now old enough to visit kill sites and go on forays with mom but are still too young to hunt on their own. They will stay with their mother until they are around two years old when they will leave to establish their own territories. We watched until the female got up and headed off. We drove hoping to get in front of her but she disappeared in the vegetation. Roberto later found her and we followed her on foot as she retraced her path overlooking Lago Sarmiento.
|Female Puma Overlooking Lago Sarmiento|
She rejoined her cubs on some rocks near the shore of the lake. It was then we noticed her licking her right front paw. Through my binoculars I could see that it was bleeding.
|Female Puma Licking Her Right Front Paw|
Oh no! What happened? Had she stepped on a sharp rock, glass, barbed wire? All were possible but more importantly could she still hunt and provide for herself and her cubs? We didn't notice her limping when we were following her so hopefully it was only a superficial wound and would heal fast. We left the family lounging peacefully in the last rays of sunshine and returned to the carcass down the road.
|Puma Family Resting in the Afternoon Sun|
Other than the grey fox nothing had touched it. I jokingly said we should bring it to the wounded mom and cubs. We set up our camera trap on a tripod made of sticks to see if the puma who made the kill would return during the night.
|Setting Up the Camera Trap|
We returned to the carcass the following morning to get our camera trap. Marc reviewed the videos on his laptop. Disappointingly the puma had not returned to its kill and the only visitors last night were 3 chillas. It would remain a mystery as to why a puma would expend the energy to kill a full-grown guanaco and not eat it.
We scanned for the puma family but did not see them. We left the area and returned to the small pond we visited on the first day. Roberto had spotted a lone puma high on the ridge. It was already getting close to noon so we returned to the lodge for a lunch break. We returned to the "pond pullout" where Roberto had stayed to keep an eye on the puma. The plan was that we'd drive around to the backside of the ridge, climb to the top and then down to see if we could intercept the puma. Rodrigo would keep an eye on the puma from below and radio us its position. Daniel drove us around with Roberto and the 4 of us climbed to the top of the ridge. As we cautiously hiked down Rodrigo radioed that there were 4 pumas! The lone puma was a female with three nearly 1-year-old cubs!
|Female Puma and 3 Cubs|
The mom and 2 of the cubs were wary and slinked off to hide after spotting us on the ridge above them. One of the cubs could care less and laid out in the open as we approached within 30 meters.
A second cub got brave and joined her. We think we were looking at a female and male cub.
|Male and Female Cubs|
The mom reappeared and we could now see she had something white hanging from her mouth! At first I thought she was eating but now it looked like a piece of bone stuck in her lip.
|Female Puma with Bone in her Mouth|
Oh no! Another mom was injured and potentially unable to hunt for her cubs. Roberto said this is the first time he's encountered mothers with injuries. Bummer. We watched the family for a while before they headed off along the ridge below us.
|Puma Family on the Ridge|
We did not follow as we did not want to stress the injured mother. By this time we noticed that Daniel had left and driven back to Rodrigo's position. Why had he left us? Rodrigo radioed that Daniel had a nearly-flat tire and had returned to change it. We decided to hike down rather than wait for Daniel to drive back up and get us. Roberto stopped at the farm owner's house to let him know about the injured puma. Hopefully he can work with the park officials to intervene on her behalf if possible. We'll be in touch with Roberto to get updates on the two injured female pumas.
|The View Below the Ridge|
The following morning we said goodbye to Roberto and promised to send photos of the injured female pumas so he could follow up with the park officials. We left the park around 10:00 for the drive back to Punta Arenas. We drove through the park enjoying partially obscured views of the Cuernos.
We stopped at the Lake Pehoe campground to look for the Large Hairy Armadillo. It had been spotted yesterday but we did not find it. We did see some some good birds including a Plumbeous Rail.
We continued on and spotted a very tame female huemul by the entrance to the Explora Hotel. The Huemul or South Andean Deer is an endangered species of deer endemic to Chile and Argentina. Conservation efforts are underway to combat habitat fragmentation and poaching. A guy who works at the hotel stopped in his van to tell us not to pet the deer. Apparently some crazy tourists have attempted to do so.
We arrived in Punta Arenas around 6:00 and checked into our hotel. A lot has changed in Torres del Paine National Park over the last 26 years. I can't say I'm happy with all the development that has gone on and the large number of tourists that visit annually. It's such an amazing place that no wonder so many people want to experience it. There is one positive change however, the number of pumas in the park area is increasing. Adjoining estancia owners who once persecuted the cats now protect them as they are worth more alive than dead. Tourists such as ourselves are willing to pay to see the pumas so it's a win-win situation for us, the estancia owners and the pumas. What a thrill to have such long and close encounters with 8 individuals! I hope the puma tours continue to be conducted in a way that keeps both the cats and tourists safe.
A big thank you to our puma tracker Roberto who found 8 of these magnificent cats for us. He taught us how to safely approach the pumas without disturbing them. Thanks to our guide Rodrigo for keeping things running smoothly and assisting Roberto. Finally, thanks to Daniel for the long drives to and from the Park and keeping our vehicles running. What a great Puma Tracking Team!
|The Puma Tracking Team (Roberto, Rodrigo, Marc, Peggy and Daniel)|
We hope all is well with everyone.