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.
The Wild Felid Legacy Scholarship from the Wild Felid Research and Management Association (WFA) provides financial aid to a graduate-level university student conducting research on wild felids in the Americas. The scholarship is awarded in early summer. The recipient(s) receive $1,000 and are recognized in the WFA’s newsletter, the Wild Felid Monitor. Applications are evaluated based on: demonstrated need for financial aid; participation in a research project that aims to improve our understanding of wild felid biology, management and/or conservation; and undergraduate and graduate GPA.
We will begin accepting applications for the 2017 scholarship January 15, 2017. All application materials must be received by the Scholarship Chairperson by MARCH 30, 2017. Incomplete applications will not be considered.
The jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi is a widely distributed small cat in Latin America. However, its natural history, including its distribution, is still very little understood.
This rare photo, obtained by the GECM (Grupo de Ecología Comportamental de Mamíferos, Universidad Nacional del Sur, Argentina) in southern Buenos Aires province, central Argentina, confirm that jaguarundis are still present, in the southernmost limit of the species geographic distribution range. It is important to mention that this is the only photo of this cat obtained in 384 camera trap stations, which indicates that the jaguarundi is the rarest felid species in the region (where the Geoffroy’s cat, Pampas cat, and puma also occur) and confirms the need for more detailed studies to better assess the conservation status of the species in central Argentina and throughout its range.
Estela Luengos Vidal, M. Guerisoli, N. Caruso, M. Franchini, Z. McDonald, and M. Lucherini
The puma (Puma concolor) is the most widespread top predator and one of the most controversial carnivores in Argentina. It occurs from the high-altitude deserts of the Andes to tropical and subtropical forests, and from the Pampas grasslands to the Patagonian steppe (Nowell and Jackson 1996). The natural prey base of Argentinean puma populations formerly included vicuña, guanaco, Patagonian huemul, taruca, Pampas deer, Marsh deer, rheas, Plain viscachas, Mountain viscachas, Patagonian hare, and capybaras. In the southernmost part of the country large native prey still comprise the bulk of puma diets (Zanón et al. 2012); however, during the last two centuries, hunting of wild prey and conversion of natural habitat into ranches and farms increased conflicts with humans and predation on livestock (Novaro et al. 2000, Walker and Novaro 2010).
This is the case in the southern Espinal where we have been working on carnivore-human conflicts since 2008. Dense shrublands and grasslands of this region have been transformed to create space for livestock. The initial habitat modeling that we performed, based on camera trapping records, show most of the landscape is no longer suitable for pumas (Caruso et al. 2015). A comparison with other carnivores occurring in the region revealed that pumas use sites with moderate fragmentation, but that they prefer preserved areas and avoid sites with significant human presence (Caruso et al. 2016).
To buttress our previous results and understand the variables affecting habitat use by pumas, we carried out a more intensive camera trapping survey over the last 24 months in two adjacent areas that differed in anthropogenic impact. Capture rates were 67.9% of 28 trapping stations in the area farther from the main road with more natural habitats, while pumas were recorded in 28% of 25 stations located closer to the road, where croplands and pastures prevail.
Interview data (2008-2015) show that sheep were the most predated livestock (7.4 head / year), followed by lambs (2.6 head / year), calves (6 head/year), and foals (0.3 head/year). Based on average prices, the economic losses caused by pumas per ranch per year (USD) were $393 for sheep (range $59-$4713) and $431 for cattle (range $70-$5953). Since sheep provide the primary income in the region, damage caused by pumas is a legitimate concern, so we scrutinized effects of puma predation in more detail. Comparing losses caused by pumas with the numbers of livestock owned, we found that pumas killed 2.2% and 3.9% of the total cattle and sheep, though the proportion individual ranches varied from 2% to 17.8%. We obtained a record of confirmed predation events in a 484-km2 area and found that during 16 months, pumas killed 33 sheep and 4 calves ( 2.23/month or 6.8/ 100 km2).
In the same period, ranchers killed 13 pumas (0.79 pumas / month or 2.7 pumas / 100 km2). This intensity of hunting is not justified by the economic impact of puma predation, and a puma population in the Espinal cannot sustain such a high mortality. The conflicts between pumas and local people are exacerbated by poor response by the government, which does not provide compensation to ranchers affected by puma predation nor provide a forum for their complaints. Predictably, local people see puma hunting as the only solution.
In 2015, we began participatory workshops to further quantify livestock losses and share this information with ranchers, hear ranchers’ positions on the causes of puma predation, and identify, with their help, effective mitigation measures. Analyses of data from the first four workshops indicates that ranchers perceive a widespread intensification in puma predation, and believe that diminished human presence in rural areas is the major cause. Other causes mentioned included presence of shrub land, laws forbidding puma hunting, and poor livestock management.
However, we found that only two of the 12 participants had changed their husbandry, whereas nine (75%) tried to kill pumas. Yet only 3 of the participants killed pumas in the previous year (averaging 3.3 puma per person). Of the 7 ranchers who applied mitigation measures, 6 corralled their livestock at night, 1 used donkeys as guardian animals and 1 reinforced their enclosures. Most participants would try mitigation but requested expert advice, because past attempts had failed or proved uneconomical.
We now plan to test the efficacy of Conditioned Taste Aversion to reduce livestock losses. We will start by testing two substances that have proven effective with other carnivores (Massei et al. 2004; Nielsen et al. 2015). We have started collecting puma tissue and fecal samples to investigate genetic differentiation and gene flow in a meta-population framework.
Although puma-livestock conflicts are common throughout Argentina, this is the first attempt to assess their true impact on ranching and the effects of retaliatory killing on puma populations. Our project will provide a baseline without which meaningful management cannot occur. We expect that this project will serve as a pilot experience to reduce livestock predation by pumas and thus provide sound recommendations to mitigate conflict in other areas.
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
These Pampas cat videos were captured by camera traps set in two different wetlands of the Sechura desert in northwestern Perú. They are part of a research project by Alvaro Garcia Olaechea and Cindy Hurtado, entitled “Human-small cat conflict and distribution of the Pampas cat Leopardus colocolo in northwestern Peru and southwestern Ecuador”.
An Andean Cat slowly walks along a ridge in the high Andes. A camera’s shutter clicks. The cat pauses to see where the noise is coming from. The camera takes a few more pictures. Curious, the feline approaches and cheek rubs the waterproof case surrounding the camera. I wake up.
That’s the dream I had while sleeping in a tent in western Bolivia while working on the Cat in Thin Air project. My name is Sebastian Kennerknecht and for years I have dreamed of photographing the Andean Cat to then use those pictures to aid in their conservation. To make this a reality I teamed up with the amazing biologists of the Andean Cat Alliance and created the Cat in Thin Air project.
The goal of the project is simple: help ensure the survival of the Andean Mountain Cat through education on a local and global scale. The method was also simple at least in concept: photograph the ecology of the cat, the human caused threats the cats face, as well as the conservation actions being taken to protect this animal, to then tell the Andean Cat’s whole story to be shared with the world.
So it was time to head to Bolivia and Argentina to meet up with the researchers who have been studying the species for years.
Once we arrived at the study site the beauty of the area became more than obvious.
So how do you photograph a cat species that most researchers studying the species have never even seen themselves? The answer is simple: SLR camera traps. Imagine a professional camera connected to two flashes all of which are connected to a triggering device that activates the camera when an animal passes through an invisible beam.
All of the biologists, including Juan Reppucci, Cintia Tellaeche, Mauro Lucherini, Alejandra Torrez, and Juan Carlos Huaranca, being the amazing people that they are put their research projects on hold and helped me not only set up these camera traps but also schlep them up the mountain.
We placed four of these camera trap set-ups to try and get pictures of these elusive cats. After that it was time to be patient and focus on the other photographs (like the threats and the biologist’s research — – but sadly if I write about that here, this post will simply get too long). After five weeks we collected all the traps and checked the results of the cameras.
Whenever I go on assignment to try and photograph a wild cat species (in the wild!) that hasn’t been photographed a whole lot, looking through the camera trap images is both nerve racking and extremely exciting. Getting pictures of a fox and a skunk was of course more than great, but it wasn’t the goal of the project. When I saw a picture of an Andean Cat on the back of the camera, all my fears went right away (due to multiple reasons we can’t publish this image yet); and that image was followed by the discovery of a Pampas Cat.
All our efforts were rewarded by this single picture. This will hopefully be the first of many pictures of the cat species found in the Andes. Only time will tell as I will return to South America next year. If you’d like to find out more about the Cat in Thin Air Project, please visit: http://catinthinair.org/ . Finally, I’d like to also make sure Lilian Villaba is acknowledged for all the work she put into making this project a reality!
The Cougar or Mountain Lion of North America is known as Puma in South America. The range of this big cat extends from The Yukon in Canada down to the tip of the Americas, and their appearance varies from the north to the south. This is an amazing video of the most southerly cats!
In April of 2014, Thomas D. Mangelsen traveled to Patagonia to photograph wild pumas. Join him on this “Wild Encounter” with the greatest cat of the Americas!
This project aims to produce much-needed information on the carnivore community occurring in the Espinal bushlands of central Argentina. In particular we aim to tackle the conflicts between livestock and puma Puma concolor, as well as identify and develop new tools to mitigate them, because the conflicts are threatening the survival of the local puma population. Also, we carry out public awareness campaigns with the aim of increasing the acceptance of carnivores by the society, and start a longer term process to design a sustainable management plan of carnivore populations in the region.
Where do we work?
The study area is located in the Southwest of Buenos Aires province; more specifically corresponds to the area of two counties, Villarino and Patagones. This region covers over 25,000 km2 and represents the last relict of the Argentine Espinal in the province. This is a transitional area between grasslands, located in the center of Buenos Aires and Monte woodland habitats, found to the west and to the south. Topography is mostly plain. Climate is temperate arid, with mean precipitation of 350‐500 mm/year.
The region has experienced a marked transformation during the last decades due to the increase of agriculture and ranching activities, which are the most important regional sources of income. This fragmentation process has turned the original landscape into a mosaic of croplands and pastures with residual patches of original vegetation. From 1975 to 2002 logging decreased the percentage of woodland areas from 65% to 37%, and this trend continues. Because the proportion of the Argentine Espinal that is legally protected is extremely low (less than 0.1%), we are working on private ranches.
What have we done?
Since the beginning of 2013, we have carried out two different field activities: photo-trapping and interviewing local people.
The objective of using this technique is to monitor the presence of different species of carnivores, including the puma, in the Espinal and use these data to construct models that allow us to understand how habitat fragmentation and other human activities influence carnivore distribution.
In order to select the sampling sites, random points were generated with a minimum distance of 6 km among them. Then, in each of those points, 5 cameras were installed with an approximate distance of 1.5 km among traps. Cameras worked continuously during 25 days in each site. From March to May we set a total of 12 monitoring sites with 5 cameras each one (total of cameras used: 30).
This protocol had already been applied the previous year and so far we have a completed a total capture effort of 7054 trap-days and collected 196 photos of Geoffroy’s cats Leopardus geoffroyi, 8 of Pampas cats L. colocolo, 45 of pumas, 547 of Pampas foxes Pseudalopex gymnocercus, 75 of Molina’s hog-nosed skunks Conepats chinga and 2 of lesser grisons Galictis cuja.
These proportions represent the following percentages of detection in the cameras:
These data show that the Pampas fox, the most adaptable carnivore of this guild, is the most widespread carnivore of this guild, but also that pumas and –especially– Geoffroy’s cats are still relatively common throughout the region. The Pampas cat would be quite rare but not as rare as the jaguarundi Puma yagouaroundi, for which we have been able to record only verbal reports of presence by a few local ranchers.
Interviews with local people:
This method was applied with the primary objective of identifying and quantifying the damage/impact produced by the carnivores in the region. Also, this technique allowed us to identify hunted pumas and foxes by the stakeholders and estimate, approximately, the rate of killed animals per year.
The interviews were done from June to September. During this survey, 2 students of the International Master Degree program of Sherbrooke University (Canada) collaborated with our team and, the data collected were used for their Master’s final work. In total we carried out 59 interviews in all the study area.
The preliminary results show that rural people think that the carnivores represent the biggest reason for economic losses.
Athough pumas and foxes were the carnivore species most blamed for livestock losses by local ranchers, many of them had suffered no attacks during the previous year.
Additionally, the information about the husbandry practices adopted by ranchers suggests that their improvement might be a way to mitigate the carnivore-livestock conflicts in the region.
Unfortunately, the most commonly cited measure to effectively reduce the losses from predation was predator control aiming to reduce carnivore population numbers, whereas changes in husbandry practices were considered much less effective and only a small number of ranchers thought that economic compensation by the government was a solution.
We took advantage of the interviews to collect puma’s genetic samples. Muscle or skin samples were collected to understand the population dynamics and to collaborate with an international genetic project (International Barcode of Life – IBOL) that aims to obtain the genetic barcode of all the species in the world.
We also started gathering information from livestock predation sites, which are important to create a spatial model that describes the environmental or anthropogenic factors favoring puma’s predation on livestock and to identify the selection of areas for mitigation process.
In conclusion, all the information collected supports our initial hypothesis that the Espinal region of Buenos Aires province still hosts a diverse and widespread community of carnivores, but also the perceptions that the situation is deteriorating rapidly because of the joint effect of retaliatory killing (related to an intolerant attitude by local ranchers) and habitat loss (related to logging to make space for agriculture). The top predator of this region, the puma, with its relatively low reproduction rates and wide space requirements, may not be able to survive these threats.
Until now, we have been doing the hard work collecting data in the field, and now need to start extracting information in order to understand the dynamics of conflicts in our region.
Our long-term objective for the next steps is to make all that information available and to propose mitigation actions to decrease the level of conflict between human and carnivores in our study region not only to the local people but also to the governmental agencies which are the responsible for taking decisions. In order to achieve this goal we are planning to carry out participatory workshops with ranchers and people from government in 2014. However, to be able to provide reliable and sound information, we have to continue our field survey focused on determining the magnitude of the conflicts and the factors –both ecological and anthropogenic– affecting them.
Dr. Mauro Lucherini – Dra. Estela Maris Luengos Vidal
Dr. Diego Castillo – Lic. Nicolás Caruso – Lic. María de las Mercedes Guerisoli
Grupo de Ecología Comportamental de Mamíferos (GECM),
Universidad Nacional del Sur, Argentina