Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park has the largest concentration of pumas anywhere on earth. For many people they’re as much of a draw as the towering granite peaks that give the park its name.
Pumas are the most widely distributed large predators in the Americas. Their range covers large chunks of Canada and the USA (where they’re better known as mountain lions or cougars), all the way down to the southernmost regions of Patagonia.
Big cats on the big screen
It was the opportunity to track pumas that drew me back to my most recent trip to Torres del Paine. Since my last visit they really have become the stars of the show. The pumas here have taken leading roles in the BBC wildlife series Dynasties as well the Netflix series Our Great National Parks, where their activities were narrated by no less a figure than Barack Obama.
Torres del Paine’s abundance of guanacos, the puma’s llama-like prey, is one reason why the wildlife filmmakers have been flocking here in recent years. Less competition for food means that pumas here are less territorial and even partial to sharing their meals. Throw in the wide-open spaces and you’re faced with a wildlife experience more akin to the African savannah than anywhere else.
With a reputation like this, my expectations going to a three-day puma tracking expedition were very high. I joined a small group staying at the Cerro Guido Estancia on the eastern edge of Torres del Paine. This area is less visited by hikers, a fact that also makes it perfect for puma tracking.
From here we made our way by 4WD along dusty tracks to the Laguna Amarga Estancia on the border of the national park. The owners here work with highly trained puma trackers and allow select groups like ours to join them to observe these incredible cats.
It wasn’t long after we entered the estancia that we began to hear chatter on our guide’s radio. Our tracker Marcial had left the estancia at the crack of dawn to look for signs of pumas in the areas. The estancia manager told us that Marcial knew every puma personally, their typical ranges and even their distinctive personality traits.
After about an hour we get the call: our tracker has located pumas. The game was on! We jumped into the vehicle and made our way to the location. Off-roading is forbidden here to protect the delicate vegetation, so Marcial met us on one of the dirt tracks to lead us to the best viewing spot.
As I went through my camera gear Marcial told us about working as a tracker on the BBC Dynasties series, guiding the film crews to follow the life of the puma Rupestre and her four cubs. With a guide like this I knew we were in the best hands possible.
On the puma trail
Tracking pumas in Torres del Paine is done almost entirely by reading the behaviour of the local guanacos, Marcial explained. By watching how they move and graze, a trained observer can immediately tell if there’s a puma in the area. At the estancia we’d pretended we knew the signs by trying to mimic the bird-like bray of the guanacos that give warning to the rest of the herd of a nearby cat, but now we were out in the field it was reassuring to know that we had a real expert leading the way to a low ridge some way from the track.
That we were getting out of the vehicle was an important distinction from an African safari: we’d encounter the pumas from a safe distance, but on foot and fully immersed in the environment. The pumas of Torres del Paine aren’t skittish like some cats, retreating at the first sight of people. The animals here are far more relaxed, which means that sometimes it’s possible to get surprisingly close: as I was about to find out.
When we summited the ridge our reward was waiting for us. About a hundred metres away there was a beautiful puma called Petaca stretched out on the ground while two cubs played around her. Even from this distance she was aware of our presence, but she was serenely calm as the cubs jumped and tumbled about. Even viewed through binoculars it felt a privilege to watch such an intimate and unguarded moment between the three of them. I didn’t know whether to take photos, film video or just stop and enjoy the moment.
A close puma cub encounter
The rule with puma tracking is to maintain a safe and respectful distance from them at all times. Not all animals are as aware of this rule than we are however, and Petaca’s two cubs certainly fell into this category. After bouncing around their mother for some time they decided to really stretch their legs. In no time at all they closed the distance between us, only to quickly decide that we weren’t guanaco-shaped at all and continue running past us as full pelt. They were cubs but still larger than any dog I’ve ever seen. For a split second they were less than 20 metres from us – close enough for me to feel a surge of adrenaline run through me. Just as Marcial had told us, they weren’t interested in people at all, and were big enough not to be concerned by our presence. It was one of the most extraordinary wildlife encounters I’ve ever had.
With the plain seemingly to herself Petaca went into hunting mode and tried to stalk a distant herd of guanaco, but even then, her cub’s antics had put them on high alert mode. As so often happens, the hunt came to nothing, but by the time she gave up she was almost beyond our binocular range. Marcial suggested we move to another location.
When we picked up Petaca’s trail further down the valley, she was trying to find her cubs. Then her behaviour changed in a way that surprised even Marcial with his years of knowing her. Petaca went from calling her cubs to something more intense and profound. She began calling for a male. This is really unusual behaviour from a mother who still has cubs because it means she was going into heat and was ready to mate again.
The cubs were about a year and a half old so were on the verge of leaving their mother forever. If a male appeared now he would be likely to try to kill them, which is what made her behaviour so surprising. But as Marcial reminded us, wild pumas have been relatively little studied until recent years, and there is still so much more to learn about them.
Petaca’s calls got stronger and more insistent. Most puma sightings in Torres del Paine tend to be of females. Males range over larger areas, whereas females with cubs tend to stick to established territories, making them easier to track. Anticipation was in the air as to whether a male would appear.
When I spotted a pair of ears in moving in the distance, my adrenaline started flowing again. Thinking it might be a male, our tracker picked up his radio in excitement ready to call it in. But then another pair of ears flashed, and we realised that it was Petaca’s cubs, back from their escapade.
We didn’t get the big male we were hoping for, but I was just as happy to see Petaca reunited with her cubs. They had ruined her guanaco hunt and her brief attempts to find a new mate, but it still felt like a happy ending worthy of any wildlife documentary.
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.