Puma watching in N.P. Torres del Paine
When we were in Patagonia for the last time in 2017 in search of pumas, we had a fantastic time but a puma never stepped in front of our lens. We are now on our way again to the Torres del Paine National Park, from countless reports we know that the puma population there has virtually exploded. Will we have more luck this time, will we finally be able to take some great pictures of the so shy wild cats? To be on the safe side, we hired our local guide again and were glad that a biologist joined our small group.
Life of the Pumas
Pumas are the fourth largest cat species, but despite their stately size they are considered to be a smaller feline species. A small feline cannot roar like the lion, the puma purrs and croaks more. They are inveterate singles, mate in a few days and then roam lonely through their territory for the rest of the year. The offspring stay with their mother for the first 20 months of their lives. When they are still small they hide while their mother provides food. The distribution area of the pumas covers both North and South America. Some subspecies reach up to 100 kg in weight, with an impressive length of 2 m. The Chilean species is however considerably smaller.
Where do I find Pumas?
The territory of a single puma extends to 100 -150 km2. So where do we start the search? In the Torres del Paine National Park you will find a richly laid table with the guanacos. The wild relatives of the llamas and alpacas roam the steppe in rows, just like their domesticated pets, always in search of a few tasty blades of grass. In the process, they tread treacherous paths in the terrain. Whoever follows these paths has a good chance of meeting a puma.
But the cat of prey does not eat the killed animal immediately, scavengers like condors but also foxes would steal their share. So one hides the prey for now. There are reports that they like to leave the offal to the scavengers and distract them from the main prey. A guanaco can weigh up to 120 kg, such a happen does not eat even a whole puma family immediately. They come over several days again and again to the hiding place. Once such a place of prey is found, nothing stands in the way of a photo safari.
The hiking trail Aonikenk connects Laguna Amarga with Lago Sarmiento on 8.6 km. This area has the highest puma density within the N.P. Torres del Paine and may only be visited in the company of a guide.
The best observation time for pumas
Pumas are shy and nocturnal, during the day they doze perfectly camouflaged in the bushes and grass steppe. Even if they are only a few meters away from you, there is not much chance to notice them. But at night it is difficult to take pictures of them. The ideal time to go on a photo stalk is therefore twilight.
Is puma watching dangerous?
In North America, puma attacks have become more frequent in recent years, probably due to the loss of hunting grounds. Pumas find less and less prey and approach hungry human settlements. No wonder there are incidents. In Chile and especially in the Torres del Paine National Park the situation is different. There are plenty of guanacos, the favourite food of the small cat. Due to this oversupply of food there have hardly been any incidents in Chile so far. During our tour we could observe up to 7 animals daily. There was never any aggressive behavior. The pumas approach the photographers without timidity up to a few meters. The danger is rather due to the misbehaviour and the careless handling of the visitors. Therefore it is very likely that sooner or later incidents will occur. In any case we advise a good guide.
There are now complete packages with accommodation and observation tours. Early in the morning scouts start looking for pumas and report their position to the guide.
How do I behave during a cougar attack
If you meet a puma you can easily recognize if it is aggressive by the behaviour of the animals. Shortly before the attack it lies lurking on the ground and stares into your eyes. Often the tail slaps back and forth. Cat owners know the behaviour of their domestic cats on the hunt for mice.
In general, it is advised to leave quietly without running away. If it comes nevertheless to an attack one must show courage and a counterattack pretend. Now it’s loud running for the puma. If possible, don’t scream hysterically, but make an impression with a powerful voice. We advise you to make yourself as big as possible, stretch your arms in the air and open your jacket. If he still doesn’t let go, it will be a desperate fight.
Any kind of weapon is welcome, no matter if fair, stick or stone. The cougar will try to bite you in the neck or head. Adults have a good chance of fending off the attack. Try to get as many hits on the head, the muzzle and especially in the eyes as possible.
Is a puma observation even supportable?
A difficult topic with divided opinions. Animal rights activists accuse the photographers of changing the behaviour of the pumas. Tourists, however, more and more often spot pumas next to the road, where it is almost impossible not to stop to take a few photos. In any case, a positive effect of the increasing tourist demand is undeniable. Pumas have been generously shot down by sheep farmers so far. Now they are also realizing that they can earn good money in tourism with the living specimens.
Since then, the population has been growing rapidly. This is not only good for the cats. The remains of the prey feed scavengers like the condor, birds of prey like the Kara Kara but also skunks. With the increase of the puma population, an increase of other animal species is also observed.