From Alaska to Patagonia, pumas are one of the Americas’ most mysterious and celebrated animals. Sometimes called the “ghost cats,” pumas generally elude human sightings, generating many myths around their behavior. Conservacion Patagonica’s monitoring program gathers precise data on puma feeding patterns, movements, and home ranges, topics largely unexplored before in the Southern Cone.
Conducting this study, however, requires tacking a major challenge: finding these elusive animals–and then figuring out how to place GPS collars on them. Tracking and collaring some animals is a piece of cake. Pumas are among the most difficult.
For the past several years, we’ve been collaring pumas during the early winter months, when snow on the ground facilitates tracking. Days tracking pumas begin before sunrise, as the team mounts their trusted horses to follow the traces of a puma. Moving by horseback, the traditional form of transportation in Patagonia, allows the team to cover more ground and more varied terrain than they could by foot or vehicle. Two or three dogs, trained by CP wildlife tracker Arcilio Sepulveda, lead the way, sniffing out the scent of the wild felines.
The team will spend hours and hours traversing the ridgelines and valleys of the future park, following the path of the puma. Through these long expeditions, the park guards and wildlife trackers have explored the geography of the park (and taken some amazing photographs in the process).
The task of safely tranquilizing a puma in order to affix the GPS collar proves as challenging as locating the animal. Once the team determines they are near a puma, they assess whether the animal is a young or mother, in which case they will not proceed with the collaring. Then, they work to assure that the puma is in a place where darting will not hurt it. Once the puma is tranquilized, one member of the team approaches the puma and moves it to a flat location. There, some team members fit the collar to the puma while others gather critical biological data about the animal. Once this process is complete, the puma receives a tranquilizer-reversant and the team observes its return to consciousness.
As one might imagine, this process poses many challenges. Luckily, we have a skilled and dedicated team at work on this project. Cristian Saucedo, Conservacion Patagonica’s Conservation Director, says often that the program owes its success to the diverse experiences and skill sets that each member of the team brings. Arcilio Sepulveda (above left) hunted pumas when the Chacabuco Valley was a sheep estancia; the knowledge he gained of the valley’s population through these years of hunting enables the team to locate these secretive cats. Delmiro Jara (above right) and Cristian Rivera spent years riding the hills of the former estancia; their horsemanship and awareness of the terrain assist the team in moving safely and quickly. Luigi Solis, in charge of habitat restoration, spent years working in forestry; his tree-climbing skills are crucial to transporting pumas to safe locations. Cristian himself, as a veterinarian, directs the collaring and data gathering.
This winter, the puma tracking expeditions began in late May. The horses were well-rested but in shape from the fall’s rides monitoring the valley, and the team eagerly anticipated the satisfying challenges ahead. The early winter saw little snow fall in the valley, making tracking all the more challenging.
On June 10, the team saw its first major success: the collaring of a two-year old male, previously not part of the monitoring study. At the end of a long day on horseback, the team encountered the puma in the “Veranada” sector of the future park (the name comes from “verano”–summer–because this area formerly served as the summer grazing grounds for sheep). When they saw he had nestled himself among the branches of a large tree, they darted him with tranquilizers. As always, Luigi got the thrilling job of climbing up the tree to lower the sleeping puma to the ground. Along with the collar, the team left this puma with a new name: Portezuela.
Last week, more snow finally fell in the Chacabuco Valley, greatly improving conditions for the team. They’ve been out tracking all week. The rest of us can’t wait to hear news of their progress when they return for a few days of rest.