“They’re on the move, coming up the hill,” says our guide in a hushed voice. We quietly follow him, settling on a rise near the hill. Tripods grounded, telephotos ready, we wait in silence. In the distance, Sarmiento Lake spreads across the open landscape. Above, wind-whipped clouds resembling a squadron of alien spaceships float past. Behind, the granite spires of Torres del Paine National Park define this southern part of Chile. But our gaze is fixed on what lies below near the base of the hill—a guanaco killed the night before by the puma approaching with her three hungry cubs.
For more than two decades, I’ve lived in puma country in Washington state. I’ve seen plenty of evidence that I share my space with Puma concolor, which goes by many common names—cougar, mountain lion and catamount. Signs of their presence include tracks, scat, a deer kill in my neighbor’s backyard and a few camera trap images. But I’ve never seen one in the thick forests of my home. And yet I’m quite certain that more than one has seen me. They’re not rare in the western United States, just wide-ranging and elusive. So, when colleague and friend Roy Toft announced a puma trip to Chile through his company, Toft Photo Safaris, I pounced at the chance to see this apex predator.
To see a puma, it’s helpful to be like a puma. This means we’re most active at dawn and dusk. This also means we’re in rugged terrain on foot in this windswept and upswept region of peaks, valleys and glaciers. And while pumas are the second-largest cat in the Americas, they become specks of beige in this enormous landscape. Finding one is like trying to search for specific grains of sand in a desert. Lucky for us, we have expert trackers to help us.
The pumas we’re looking for are not radio-collared, so the trackers must use their eyes, ears and knowledge of puma behavior. Fortunately, the trackers have guanacos to help them. Guanacos are members of the camelid family, which also includes llamas, alpacas and vicuñas in South America. Guanacos are the primary prey for pumas here and live in herds. The dominant male of a herd gives an alarm call similar to a horse whinny when predators are afoot. The herd flees if a puma comes too close for comfort. Yesterday at dusk, our trackers followed alarm calls and herd movement to a guanaco freshly killed by the puma now returning to her prey.
It seems silly to journey so far to see a species that lives in my backyard. But the chances of seeing a puma here are greater than at home. With abundant prey, intact habitat and little in the way of human civilization, this is prime puma land. And, remarkably, we are on private land adjacent to Torres del Paine National Park. Vast ranches, called estancias, border the park and are home to sheep and other livestock, some of which fall prey to pumas.
Despite being protected, pumas have long been persecuted by local people. But attitudes are slowly shifting as tourism is changing the way some estancia owners view the big cats. The ranch we are on, owned by two brothers, welcomes visitors like us hoping to catch a glimpse of pumas in the wild. I’m heartened that the 27-year-old daughter of one of the brothers is helping run the tourism business. She wants to stay on her family’s ranch, and the future for her generation here may be intertwined with a healthy puma population.
Finally, the female called Sarmiento crests the hill with her cubs. They rest on top of the hill before continuing to the kill. After the family fills their bellies, Sarmiento grooms her young. Fed and clean, the energized cubs begin a raucous game of chase, ambushing each other, tumbling off rocks and jumping over their patient mother. To see pumas being pumas in a place shaped more by the forces of nature than the hands of man is humbling and hopeful. As the sky begins to dim, I give a silent nod to these wild cats in thanks for showing me what’s real.