Chile’s protections for pumas fuel conflict with ranchers

The big cats, leaving their reserved areas in Patagonia in search of food, are mauling sheep herds. Could tourism solve the problem?

Pincushion shrubs and shards of rock don’t trouble the puma known as Sarmiento, at center, or her 11-month-old cubs, huddled up at the end of a winter’s day above Lake Sarmiento, near Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. The matriarch, who has raised several generations of cubs, spends most of her time hunting— and napping—along this waterfront.

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.

Read This Next

First great apes at U.S. zoo receive COVID-19 vaccine made for animals

The priceless primate fossils found in a garbage dump

Buried for 4,000 years, this ancient culture could expand the 'Cradle of Civilization'

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet