Wild Pumas—Patagonia Scouting Trip 2015

By Joe Van Os on May 12, 2015

I’ve photographed wildlife for most of my adult life, and like many nature photographers, some of my favorite subjects are large mammal predators—bears and cats in particular—and birds.

For years, photographing cats was largely restricted to Africa—lions, leopards and cheetahs—or a tiger safari in India. Then, a few years ago, amazing opportunities opened up for shooting jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal. With the accessibility of the jaguars, I thought there would probably never be any other reliable opportunities to photograph the other species of big cats due to the rarity and extreme inaccessibility of snow leopards, or the incredible secrecy and stealth normally attributed to pumas (a.k.a. mountain lion, cougar, etc.).

But my recent wild puma scouting trip to Patagonian Chile, in the environs of Torres del Paine National Park, provided another amazing big cat photography adventure, with the unique twist that the photography is almost entirely done on foot—sometimes within 40 or 50 feet of these spectacular wild cats! During this five-day trip—a very short “busman’s holiday” immediately following our April Patagonia’s Mountain Landscapes trip—I saw 14 individuals, more than twice the sum total of all the pumas I have seen in my lifetime!

On April 1, 2015, a private ranch adjacent to the eastern boundary of the national park has been opened to photography groups for the purpose of viewing and photographing pumas. Many of the thriving pumas in the national park and this adjacent ranchland—estimated between 90 and 115 cats—take full advantage of the ranch’s 27-square-miles of guanaco-rich habitats. Guanacos are the puma’s principal prey species.

Photographers are provided complete access to this ranchland, and there are no limitations or restrictions as to where to walk or photograph on the property. The national park strictly limits human traffic to the park roadways or a few designated foot trails, and prohibits any off-road/off-trail travel—making puma photography virtually impossible within the park, unless you are really, really lucky to find one crossing the road.

My trip started “early” in the morning (sunrise at this time of year is close to 9 AM) when my “puma tracker” hiked high into the foothills with his binoculars to scan over miles of treeless ranchland. Since many of the ranch’s primary puma territories are known, scouring the landscape across these haunts provides a high probability of finding a cat. Once the tracker spotted a puma, he directed me and another tracker, by radio, to the most accessible location along a ranch road where we could begin our hike to the cat(s). The young hilltop tracker was as fit as an army ranger, often staying out the entire day to spot cats as he bounded up one hill and down another. Without him I never would have obtained my best puma photos!

My first puma encounter involved four cats—a female and her two almost full-grown cubs and a large male (probably a suitor waiting for her to start estrus and drive the big cubs away). They were feeding on a guanaco that they had killed and partially eaten the night before. I had joined several other photographers who were also scouting the ranch for photography opportunities. We were quietly set up and were just starting to get some great shots not far from the road. Then, two roadway maintenance workers saw us and abruptly stopped and popped out of a large truck and slammed the doors. Their thoughtless actions made the pumas abandon their kill which ended our shoot. The cats slowly walked up a hill and disappeared over the top. They came back after dark and finished their meal.

This was an unfortunate—but valuable—learning experience. Lesson learned: photographers should wear dull and neutral-colored clothing or partial camouflage—not because bright colors frighten the cats, but to make you a bit harder to see for anyone driving on the public roads that bisect parts of the ranch!

During the next two days I saw nine additional cats including a female with five relatively small cubs-of-the-year. Though these were a great viewing experience they did not yield the up-close-and-personal images I was hoping for. But the other photographers I met had much better opportunities, in the days before my arrival, than I was having up until that point.

But my turn came, after the other shooters headed home, when I found myself within 40 feet of a beautiful two-and-a-half-year-old female who allowed me to photograph her for over an hour. As she rested on a high overlook she scanned for guanacos below. It felt like she almost totally ignored my presence—she was so completely casual about my proximity and the clicking of the shutter. As the sun began to set, she got up and started walking down a hiking trail. (The best photography takes place when the light is low and the cats are most active.) I followed, about 50 feet behind her, for over a mile. She looked back at me twice.

During my scouting trip, the weather was clear and beautiful every day. The spectacular mountain scenery was in full view from sunup to sundown and the notorious Patagonia wind was almost dead calm much of the time. That meant the majestic snowy massifs were wonderfully reflected in the mirror-smooth ponds along the roadway. Although the purpose of this trip was a cat shoot, it was impossible to resist a landscape shot or two when the opportunity presented itself. Large herds of photogenic guanacos were also easy photo subjects.

Our new Wild Pumas—Patagonia trip will involve lots of hiking. I think it’s reasonable to assume that walks of up to two miles to get to a photogenic cat are possible. Many of the cats I saw were much closer than that. But my best opportunity came around a mile-and-a-half away from a road. The scrubby terrain is not difficult to hike across. There is lots of space to walk between the shrubs, and it’s largely “gravelly” and not very “rocky.” The strain I felt came from long, gradual hills that went continually, relentlessly upward—an obvious place where a cat would like to sit! I carried too much gear in my pack and too much fat around my belly!

Shooting these cats could be done with a 100-400mm zoom with a 1.4x teleconverter and a camera body that provided some additional crop factor on a tripod. That combination could keep the weight down during the longer uphill hikes. Ideally, the equivalent of at least 600mm is desirable and you can obtain that magnification with the above gear combination. However, those very fit shooters that can carry the extra weight should bring the biggest prime lens they can carry—plus the 100-400mm zoom. By contrast, heading back down the hill made me feel almost as spry as a gazelle!

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