A young puma looks for Guanaco on an early morning hunt.
I had been hearing several favorable reports on the reliability of photographing pumas (mountain lions in AZ, cougars in the Rockies, panthers in FL, but all the same species) just outside of Torres del Paine Park on the southern tip of Chile. So I contacted Charles Munn of Southwild.com and began to set up the trip. As I communicated with Charles, also a biologist, my excitement grew because from all sources they were so visible. I had a hard time believing it though.
For 5 years I spent almost 200 days a year in the field capturing and following mountain lions (Puma concolor) in 2 different studies in AZ. My primary disappointment with studying them was that they were ghosts, only seen when placing a radio collar on them. I would follow an 9.892 beep, then a 9.711 beep etc. The only one I ever saw again is when I tromped deep into a canyon with an AZ Highways writer and glassed (binoculars) it up over a mile away. That writer later became the editor and also a friend and I'm still not sure he thinks that spot was real or not. But to me, that was lion work, sweat, a little blood from scratches in thick brush, miles on a mule or horse just to find some sign. I often saw the bears I caught again, and always saw the big game I studied, but mountain lions were just a track, some scat, or a beep, the true ghosts of AZ mountains.
I was still dubious when I finally arrived after almost 24 hours of travelling to get to our lodge. Would I really see them as close as advertised? Of course I wanted pictures but just to watch one in a stalk would be a dream come true. The first afternoon out I found out, we saw 4 different pumas, including the one below that walked right by us on her way to find more guanaco, their chief prey in and near the park.
A large female puma forces the 6 of us to move off a game trail as she watches a herd of Guanaco over 1 km away, this was only out first afternoon.
Each morning we would leave before light, drive through the park and go to a ranch bordering the park where there were 2 Southwild employees sitting on mountain tops looking for the pumas. Being on the ranches outside the park is key, because they do not allow hiking off trail in the park. We saw some in the park, but most we had to hike too. And if they moved, we were able to follow, you can't do that in the park.
As soon as we got to the spot we were to hike, those of us that had binoculars joined in. It wasn't long until one of us saw our prey and off we would go. On day 3, I was to see what I had so hoped for, a lion making a stalk on a group of large prey that was unaware of this magnificent predator. It was the same female as above, and I saw her quietly almost slide on her belly for almost 500 m until she had to run because one of guanacos winded her. She didn't catch one but I realized how lucky I was just to see that, much less get photographs and video the whole stalk. That wasn't the only stalk I got to see either, we got to see 2 more before we left.
It was like that the whole trip, we saw 22 different pumas by the end of the 8 day trip (averaging over 10 sightings a day). To "glass them up" was so easy and I was entranced by that. The guanacos were a real help as they would start alarm calling as soon any of them saw a puma moving as it left it's bed. All we had to do was point our binoculars the direction the guanacos were looking and focus on movement. The eagle eyed guides on the mountain tops were usually first to find them but I found a few myself. Whomever found them we would watch, try and see where the animal was going and them make our way over. All morning and afternoon! I get chills just thinking about it as I write these few words. Truly a dream trip, one I hope to do again as soon as I can. Oh, and then we went and watched over 30 Andean Condors fly right over us for a day as we traveled north to catch our first flight home.
I really hope to guide this trip soon but I've been diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) [aka Chronic fatigue syndrome]. I would really like to put my past field experience to work with photography to help people learn about Pumas (or mountain lions) as they photograph them. I'm doing every thing I can to get back to my full energy level and hoping to see progress soon. But if you are in a hurry contact Charlesmunn@southwild.com and I'm sure he can set you up. He even guarantees his trip. As you can see from the images below, they are not kidding when he says his crew can put you up close and personal.
There were many great photograph opportunities this summer, and we took full advantage of them. This, despite the fish arriving early, and the water being higher than it has been in over 20 years. It did take some more work than in years past and I sure appreciated the dedication of the participants.