The pumas of Torres del Paine have captured the world’s attention thanks to TV series like Dynasties and Pumas At The End of The World. To better understand the challenges in conserving these magnificent creatures we spoke to Mark Elbroch, the director of the puma program at Panthera, the global wildcat conservation organisation, about their efforts to protect pumas in Chile.
Working for Torres del Paine’s pumas
Can you introduce the work you’re doing with pumas in Chile?
Our main focus is on the region around Torres del Paine National Park, where tourism plays a significant role in our conservation efforts. We aim to promote coexistence between pumas and the people. At Panthera, we strongly believe that humans are an integral part of ecosystems, and we strive to support both healthy human communities and wildlife populations. In Patagonia, where sheep ranching is prevalent, our challenge is to find ways for ranchers to coexist harmoniously with pumas.
We’ve been actively working in Torres del Paine and the surrounding area for over five years, and currently we’re developing a strategy to connect pumas there all the way up to Aysen. Additionally, we’re exploring opportunities for cross-border connections into Argentina. The entire region remains under pressure due to existing provincial bounties on pumas, which creates a significant incentive for their killing instead of fostering coexistence. To ensure the genetic health and survival of puma populations, we need to establish connections between existing regional groups.
How many pumas are there in the Torres del Paine region?
We can reasonably estimate that there are a couple of hundred pumas in the Torres del Paine region. In terms of density, it’s probably at least twice as many as any other known population elsewhere. While we don’t have specific numbers, historical accounts from explorers who spent time in that region suggest that pumas were quite common in the past. We would be thrilled to witness their return, as they play a critical role in the ecosystem.
A puma’s place in the ecosystem
Biologists often refer to pumas as ecosystem brokers. What does that mean exactly?
Ecosystem brokers are animals that significantly influence the distribution of resources within an ecosystem, both in space and time. Pumas in particular play a disproportionate role directing where these resources go within the landscape and when they occur, supporting biodiversity and the resilience of an ecosystem. By this we mean the ability of an ecosystem to bounce back after an injury, such as a disease outbreak, fire or human development. When you add pumas to the environment, it creates more connections between species, leading to a more intricate and resilient ecosystem. They contribute to more efficient energy and nutrient flows, allowing the ecosystem to recover and heal after disturbances.
How do pumas do that?
Pumas impact the behaviour of their prey such as guanacos by influencing where and when they forage. This behavioural impact then influences plant communities, as guanacos graze differently based on the risk of predation by pumas. In areas they avoid due to the threat of pumas, the plants grow differently than in areas where they feel safer to graze. When they graze more, their faeces deposit more nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil, leading to changes in soil chemistry. These changes in the soil chemistry affect plant growth patterns, which, in turn, have implications for insect and animal communities.
Pumas also contribute a significant amount of carrion to the ecosystem which benefits scavengers like the culpeo fox, especially during winter when food resources are scarce. When a puma makes a kill, it’s often followed by multiple foxes that try to steal the food. Other scavengers from insects all the way to large birds like the Andean condor, also benefit from these carcasses.
In Patagonia, the Andean condor is a near-threatened species and its survival heavily relies on large carcasses. Large carnivores like pumas play a vital role in providing this food source, so they support the growth and protection of condor populations. Furthermore, the carcass sites have further cascading effects on the ecosystem. The deposition of nitrogen and phosphorus from these carcasses enhances the soil’s chemistry, making those areas more attractive to future foraging by ungulates and creating a cycle of increasing richness in the ecosystem.
Humans are also part of that ecosystem, right?
Exactly. We want to understand the impact of cultural changes on our perception of large carnivores. In places like Patagonia, tourism has played a significant role in changing people’s values. Twenty years ago it would have been unimaginable to hear locals talking about pumas as part of their natural heritage and critical to the ecosystem. Tourism has shifted their perspectives, and it’s exciting to see how it can lead to long-term changes in people’s beliefs. Making connections between charismatic species like pumas and the overall health of the ecosystem can lead to positive shifts in conservation efforts.
Pumas or ranchers?
Sheep ranching is an important part of the culture in this part of the world. How do you deal with the traditional conflict between ranchers and pumas?
The issue is ongoing and there’s no easy solution. Some ranchers benefit from pumas, realising the role they play in the ecosystem. However, there are also those who don’t want to change their ways and want to continue killing pumas. Additionally, some ranchers prefer to stick to traditional sheep ranching and aren’t interested in participating in tourism. This diversity of views makes it challenging to find common ground. Conservation is a dynamic and complex process, and we are still working on finding sustainable solutions to address the conflicts.
We know that staying on an estancia is also a big part of the experience for many tourists.
Yes, and they want to have an asado (traditional barbecue) at night, sheep on the ranch and a puma passing by at night. Bringing all these elements together requires some negotiation and discussions, finding common ground through give and take. Ultimately, the decisions should be made by the local people themselves. Our role is not to impose anything; rather we aim to create a safe space for them to communicate openly and reach a solution that satisfies everyone.
The key is to establish systems that foster a long-term commitment to protecting the species and preserving their way of life. This includes ensuring the continuation of sheep ranching and cultivating a supportive community, regardless of involvement in tourism. It’s an ongoing process, but what makes it truly exciting is that it revolves around constant conversation and collaboration, creating a space for people to discuss and negotiate solutions that work for them and the wildlife they coexist with.
Tourism and puma researchers
Does tourism impact the study of pumas in Patagonia?
Tourism offers incredible opportunities for studying pumas up close and in real-time. In other regions studying pumas has been indirect, relying on technology and inference to understand their behaviour. However, in Patagonia, researchers can directly observe pumas, which has led to valuable discoveries. For example, we’ve observed young dispersing cats being supported by the community, receiving food from adult pumas. This kind of quick feedback and direct observation is immensely beneficial for puma research and can help us better understand their social behaviours and community dynamics.
Watching pumas in their natural habitat allows us to learn more about their social behaviours and how they contribute to larger communities, challenging the misconception that they are solitary and selfish beings. This new understanding is mind-blowing and could have implications for puma conservation worldwide.
So puma tourism not only benefits local economies but can also play a vital role in shaping people’s attitudes towards wildlife and conservation?
Tourism has the potential to go beyond economic benefits and influence people’s belief systems positively. By showing the interconnectedness of species and the impact of charismatic animals like pumas on the ecosystem’s health, tourism can foster long-term support for conservation efforts. Ultimately, it’s about creating a space for communities to engage in meaningful conversations and decide on the best strategies for coexistence with wildlife.
Visit Panthera to find out more about their work with puma in Torres del Paine and their wild cat conservation projects worldwide.
If you want to track pumas in Torres del Paine for yourself, Swoop Patagonia are the experts talk to. Get in touch today and let us help you plan your wildlife adventure.