Until recently, it was virtually impossible to reliably see and photograph a wild puma. That has all changed in the last five to ten years. I just returned from an eight-day trip to southern Chile, where I had the privilege of seeing twelve different pumas, some as close as ten yards (nine meters) away from me.
Until last fall, I lived in central California for over twenty years. Pumas — also called mountain lions, cougars, catamounts, shadow cats, among many other names — live there as well. Yet in all my time actively looking for these elusive cats I never even glimpsed the tail end of one. It required traveling halfway around the world to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing one of these cats freely walk on this earth.
The reason for this is simple, conservation. Torres del Paine National Park and the adjacent 6,662 ha Laguna Amarga Ranch provide a large area where pumas are not persecuted. This has led to about fifteen individual animals not being afraid of people. Those same animals are the ones featured in my images, and everyone else who has traveled to most southern part of Chilean Patagonia.
This was a once in a lifetime experience for me, but being a conservation photographer focused on wild felids, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. During interviews conducted in 2005-2006 Anna Kusler and her colleagues determined that 86% of ranchers surrounding Torres del Paine National Park had a negative perception of pumas, due to pumas predating on their domestic sheep. Additionally, 100% of the interviewees had a negative perception of guanacos, the pumas principal prey, due to their perceived competition with sheep for grass. This outlook does not bode well for any of the wildlife surrounding the park.
As Kusler’s paper suggests, there are a few options to create a system that allows for more co-existence between the human population and the local wildlife. This includes using livestock guarding dogs, corralling sheep at night, and of course eco-tourism. The owners of the aforementioned Laguna Amarga Ranch switched from sheep husbandry to puma ecotourism after a harsh winter storm killed many of their animals in 1995. They never looked back. During my trip, there were four different tour companies using their land to reliably see and photograph pumas. The densities of pumas were so high in the area, we almost always had the pumas to ourselves. From a purely economic standpoint, an alive puma was worth more than a dead one. From an emotional standpoint, seeing these animals in the wild are moments I will never forget. I am excited by the idea that this change of thought will happen in the United States as well, sooner than later.
Kusler A., Sarno R., Volkart N., Elbroch M., Grigione M. 2017. Local perceptions of puma-livestock conflict surrounding Torres Del Paine NP, Chile. Cat News 65, 13-16, 2017.
While these may sound like words of wisdom from a mafia movie, they are actually the three steps of a process known as the 3-S treatment and describe the deadly fate of many species of wildlife in rural areas throughout the Americas.
There are a variety of reasons why people resort to the 3-S treatment, including retaliation against an animal that is preying on livestock, or that the presence of an animal classified as endangered restricts a property owner’s land usage. The failure of authorities to consistently respond to people’s demands for assistance in dealing with wildlife conflicts – as well as some countries’ lax enforcement of wildlife protection laws – only serve to amplify the problem.
One certain poultry-targeting ocelot’s life was recently spared in Ecuador, however, thanks to a combined effort on behalf of the Ministry of Environment, a busy rescue and rehabilitation centre called Merazonia, and a farmer who opted for capture and relocation rather than the 3-S treatment. Pending a positive health assessment by Merazonia’s on-site veterinarian, the spotted wild cat would get another chance at life in the wild, not unlike dozens of other animals released by the centre every year.
Founded in 2004, Merazonia’s 250-acre property is located near the village of Mera – one of the gateways to Ecuador’s Oriente region – where the Andean foothills and lush cloud forests progressively give way to the rainforests of the lowland Amazon basin.
The centre primarily caters to various species of primates, parrots and other mammals. However, it also assists in collecting data on the region’s cat populations and contributes to their conservation in a variety of ways. In 2015, the centre made national news after it managed to capture images of a rare black melanistic jaguar on one its trap cameras on two different occasions. The same camera, located on a trail through dense forest on the centre’s property, has also photographed other jaguars, pumas, oncillas, jaguarundis, margays and ocelots.
The majority of animals brought to Merazonia are rescues from the illegal wildlife trade, as is the case with an adult puma named Pangui who arrived at the centre in 2011. Extremely emaciated, the puma was one of 30 animals confiscated from a hostel in the Andean highlands where it was kept in a small cage as a tourist attraction. Although the centre initially aimed to release Pangui, it became clear that she was just too domesticated to survive in the wild. It is for this reason that she, like a number of other animals at Merazonia, will live out the rest of their lives in the centre’s large enclosures that are designed to resemble their natural habitats.
Nevertheless, like every true rehabilitation centre, their primary focus is to reintegrate animals back to their forest homes whenever possible. Since its inception, Merazonia has released tens of dozens of animals including primates, reptiles, and cats like oncillas, margays and ocelots.
The story of the ocelot patiently awaiting release, however, is particularly inspiring to Frank Weijand, co-founder of Merazonia, who says it is but one of many positive signs of shifting attitudes in local communities in regards to wildlife conservation. Although he recognizes that some people still resort to the 3-S treatment (which makes it difficult to accurately asses the amount of wildlife being killed), it is increasingly common for people to contact Merazonia to ask for assistance in catching and relocating cats spotted near their neighbourhoods, Weijand says. People have also been more inclined to denounce cases of wild animals being illegally held captive as pets and to report injured animals that are found near roads, he adds.
The fact that cats are being increasingly relocated as opposed to killed is due to the hard work of various conservation NGO’s operating in the field combined with an increase in educational television programs that slowly change the way people see and treat wildlife, says Dr. Rafael Hoogesteijn, Jaguar Program special advisor for Panthera, a worldwide wild cat conservation organization.
Nevertheless, the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species still mentions retaliatory killing due to depredation of poultry as one of the major threats to ocelots’ declining populations, along with habitat loss and fragmentation and the illegal trade of pets and pelts.
To promote human-wildlife conflict management practices, Panthera runs workshops for ranchers and cattlemen throughout Latin America, and have launched strategy-testing pilot projects on farms in Costa Rica, Belize, Columbia and Brazil. These workshops have been successful in providing communities with low-cost strategies that help prevent predation in the first place. Being proactive, and constantly developing and improving case-specific strategies eliminates the need for people to resort to the dated solution of killing cats or totally eliminating “problem species”, as is still common practice in certain regions of the United States, Argentina and Chile, Hoogesteijn says.
Furthermore, shooting at cats may only worsen livestock predation issues, as Panthera’s studies have found that a high number of “problem cats” had been previously injured by gunshot, causing them to rely on domesticated prey which is much easier to catch and kill, he adds.
In addition to education and outreach programs, an effective feline conservation strategy must also include the establishment of protected areas of adequate size, an increase in monitoring and enforcement of wildlife protection laws, and the need for ranchers to be able to profit from implementing conservation measures on their lands through reward systems, according to Panthera’s Anti-Predation Strategies for Cattle Ranching in Latin America: A Guide. However, Ecuador is one of only three countries throughout the ocelot’s entire range in which they are not protected, according to the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission Cat Specialist Group. This makes the prospects of such a conservation strategy being enacted in the country seem particularly troublesome.
Eventually, the Ministry of Environment completed its paperwork and gave the green light for the ocelot’s relocation in late January 2016. After a quick inspection in the clinic, a team of three Merazonia coordinators set out for the chosen relocation site, Llanganates National Park – a location known to hold healthy populations of cats.
Once on site, the team started their journey into the jungle accompanied by members of the ministry. Coordinators Thomas Ottenhoff, Jason Howard and Jeni Taylor took turns carrying the cat in pairs, aided by a long pole to which the transport cage was attached. After 45 minutes, they encountered a major obstacle – the turbid waters of a fast-flowing river.
It wasn’t until they were half way through the river that they realized the gravity of the situation, as they suddenly stepped into a frigid, waist-deep pool. As the strong current pushed against them they struggled to hold the cage high in the air to avoid submerging the cat as they fought to regain their balance. To make matters worse, the cat had begun to stress, causing her to repeatedly claw at Ottenhoff’s hands, which were just out of reach.
Once on firm ground on the opposing bank, the cat promptly relaxed as it actively sniffed out its new surroundings. Soon after, upon a high ridge, the team opened the cage door and quietly backed off. After a minute or two, the ocelot calmly exited, and within seconds had vanished into the dark forest. Ecstatic, the team gave each other a high-five and stood there for a minute, not speaking, just smiling.
“It was so cool,“ Taylor recalls of the moment every wildlife rehabilitator dreams of, “you can’t top that feeling of watching such a beautiful animal go back to where it belongs.”
Author Justin Taus can be reached on Twitter @JustinTaus and his Instagram contact is justintaus
This post is about my most recent trip – a weekend to Thailand to spend time with flat-headed cats!
Flat-headed cats are a little known species, native to some parts of south east Asia, such as the island of Borneo. They are specialised fish hunters and are classed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Around a year and a half ago I saw via the internet that there were a handful of flat-headed cats kept in captivity in Thailand, and so decided to get in contact with these collections.
It took a while of being passed between email addresses, but finally I was put in contact with the animal manager of a well known zoo not too far from Bangkok.
I explained through our conversations about myself and my interest in spending time with the zoo’s flat-headed cats to get a small glimpse at their behaviour and learn how they are managed by their keepers; but also offered to help bring ideas on enrichment etc – this was greatly accepted and we started to discuss things further.
I had to write an official letter, with proof of my professional history, to the director of the zoo, who accepted my request and sent me an official invite which was fantastic, and after that I was able to start planning.
I didn’t have anyone that was able to come with me from the UK, but as it was my cousin was travelling around Thailand with his girlfriend at the time so we all arranged to meet at Bangkok airport upon my arrival and go from there.
September 2014 arrived, and after a very long (not made better by a very loud, drunk man in the seat behind me) flight, I made my way through Bangkok airport, got screened for Ebola, passed through customs and then found my cousin.
The animal manager of the zoo was also waiting at the airport in one of the zoo vehicles, and drove my cousin and I the hour journey to the zoo, passing my massive traffic jams, and little villages, eventually moving into beautiful lush green forest.
As soon as we got there I was shown to my very own apartment (they were really taking care of me!) where I had time to freshen up then we were taken to meet the director. Both myself and my cousin were given the warmest of welcomes and also gifted a lovely book all about the animals kept at the zoo with some incredible pictures in it.
I was itching to see the zoo, so the animal manager drove us round taking us to see lots of animals such as the elephants, and the clouded leopards – which are another species of small cat, and an incredibly beautiful one at that! The zoo has a great breeding program for this species, working with other zoos globally to move on youngsters to spread the genes. I was privileged enough to be given the opportunity to interact with some young hand reared clouded leopards after meeting with the head keeper of these cats, which was fantastic. They were so full of life and so so agile running around and jumping out of the trees, running along the ground, bouncing off my shoulders then leaping back into the trees.
We were shown around the rest of the cat section, but as it was getting late we didn’t have much time so were taken back to the apartment and then taken for dinner at a beautiful wooden tower overlooking the forest about 20 minutes away from the zoo.
Unfortunately that night I became VERY ill, and had to rearrange plans and flights to come home as soon as possible. I was really glad that my cousin was there as he made sure I was OK and kept me hydrated etc.
Next morning, I forced myself to get up to do what I had travelled all the way to Thailand to do, even if it was just for the day rather than for a week as planned. I met the head cat keeper and was taken to the enclosure where the flat-headed cats were.
The first thing that struck me was the smell (which didn’t help when I wasn’t feeling great!) – lots of small cats have a strong smell, but this was a very different & strong smell. The zoo kept two males, one of which was hand reared. The cats clearly didn’t have much interaction with their keepers as they both stayed in their hollowed out log shelter, just watching what we were doing.
I went around the enclosure cleaning up the cats’ mess, raked their substrate and scrubbed out & refilled their pond as we were going to put their food ( a fish each) in there later that day. One of the cats came out of the resting place and walked over to the freshly cleaned pond once I had moved away from it, and interestingly I noticed that as he walked around, he was constantly letting out a very fine stream of urine, as a way of spreading his scent – this is probably why the smell in the enclosure was so strong!
It was interesting to really see the physique of this species when the cat was up and about.. a very short, round shape with a short and flattened tail. wide, webbed paws with claws that stuck out, just like those of the very closely related fishing cat. This species mainly hunts fish, so these physical adaptations help it hunt in and around the water. It was interesting to see just how flat the top of this cats’ head was too.. the reason why it is called the ‘flat-headed cat’.
Due to my changed flight schedule, I had to leave the flat-headed cats and the zoo, despite not having spent as much time there as I would have liked. I travelled back to the airport and said goodbye to my cousin and his girlfriend so that I could catch my flight home.
I keep in contact with the animal manager, and am very thankful at being given the opportunity to spend some time, however short it was, with one of the most endangered cat species on the planet. The opportunity for me to back to the zoo to spend time learning more is there, and I will definitely be going back in the future.
With this post I’m going to tell you about my ‘Weekend to Africa’ to spend time with an African golden cat!
African golden cats are most definitely the least known of all the African cat species, and there haven’t been many recorded in captivity, with the last known ones passing away many years ago.
In 2014 after some months of communication (having had to majorly brush up on my French), I was invited to a private sanctuary in Central Africa by a lady who happened to keep what I think may be the only captive African golden cat. I booked my flights for March, and asked my dad to come along too as Central Africa wasn’t a place that I wanted to go to alone.
One long and bumpy plane journey later we arrived safely and were taken to the sanctuary, which was through the local village, down a dirt track and behind a big set of metal gates. Despite being extremely tired from the journey and the shock to the system of being in such a high humidity area (after coming from a very rainy London) I was itching to see the cat, but it was 2am so everything was in darkness.
Once we had had the chance to catch up on sleep the owner showed us around the grounds and explained why she had the various animals there. Animals such as the golden cat, some mangabey monkeys, mongoose, civets, various small hoofed animals and a 4 year old gorilla were all victims of wildlife crime and as the owner worked for the government, she took them in to her sanctuary.
Having grown up with western zoos, enclosures here weren’t to the standards that I was used to, but the owner and her staff showed as much passion and enthusiasm for the animals as any keeper that I have worked with. I was shown plans for a brand new ‘semi-wild’ site that was being created deep in the forest that the animals would move to so they weren’t near to people, and was asked to design a better enclosure for the African golden cat, with the ability to hold more than one in case others were to be rescued. I felt privileged to be asked this and got on with designs straight away.
My weekend at the sanctuary was mostly spent sat by the side of the African golden cat enclosure, completely mesmerised by how stunning it was.
It was a 4 year old male that the owner took in at a young age, due to villagers finding him on his own at the edge of a forest who then handed him over to police.
He was a solidly built cat, a little bigger than a caracal (which it is closely related to genetically) with a reddish/grey coat, a white underside and faint markings along his sides & belly. He had huge feet, long back legs, a shorter tail and amazing crystal blue eyes.
Despite having been in a captive environment from a young age, he showed lots of interest and natural stalking behaviour in the various hoof stock species roaming freely in the area next to his enclosure. He would also readily leap up the branches in the enclosure to try and catch wild birds that landed on his roof.
He wasn’t as aggressive as I had expected him to be, although he would hiss if I shuffled position (mainly due to the ants that were climbing into my shorts!) He was actually quite interested in what I was doing, and I have a lot of great pictures of his big pink nose, where he would put his face up to the camera just as the photo was taken!
With the keeper, I went in to the enclosure to clean up his mess and any food left overs, and although the cat was confident when there was a fence between us, he stayed out of our way when we were cleaning up, though we did have a broom at hand to keep him at distance if we needed to.
Whilst in the enclosure I took the opportunity to spray some of the owner’s perfume on a tree stump, as a bit of sensory enrichment, which is something that we do quite often in western zoos to keep our captive animals stimulated. As soon as we left the enclosure the golden cat investigated the new smell and displayed lots of similar behaviours to other cats that I have done this enrichment with – lots of head and body rubbing around the stump and then spraying over it and walking round his territory, spraying and calling.
Although it was a very quick trip, I absolutely loved having the opportunity to study and do a bit of enrichment with the African golden cat; and hope to go back once the new semi-wild site & enclosure complex is completed, to help with moving the animals.
I would love to create a bit more awareness for the existence of this beautiful but little known species, and help direct attention to the great studies being carried out by scientists and conservation organisations right now.