The first mountain lion I set eyes on was a heavily muscled creature, snarling with fear, 20 feet up a pine tree in central Utah. Treed by hounds, the animal was shot by a federal employee protecting a rancher’s sheep. If that encounter was pure Sam Peckinpah, my next sighting of the elusive cats—in Chile, where they’re known as pumas—would be straight out of a storybook.
Wedged between shrubs on a wind-blasted slope just outside southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, I watch three tawny cubs tumble and race along the shore of an aquamarine lake, testing their strength, their teeth, their social status. Now and then their mother, known as Sarmiento, stops to assess the situation: Her green eyes, circumscribed with black eyeliner, are calm, her thick tail low. When the quartet reaches a peninsula studded with stromatolites, a puma timer apparently goes off: The mother and cubs curl up inside one of the doughnut-shaped rocks and do what cats do best. They nap.
Found all the way from southern Alaska to southern Chile, Puma concolor has the largest range of any land-dwelling mammal in the Western Hemisphere. Scientists suspect that there are higher concentrations of pumas around Torres del Paine than anywhere else. That’s mostly because pumas have plenty of prey (guanacos, hares), are protected in the park, and lack competition from other mammalian predators, such as wolves.