Wednesday, 7 October 2015


It is ten to eleven at night and I have not had a break since six this morning. This will have to be brief.

Already I can spot a significant flaw in my plan to be brief. For this afternoon we saw six new pumas, bringing the total of individual pumas seen today to eight, and between today and yesterday to ten. By any standard, that's just bonkers.

This afternoon's pumas were:

The Sarmiento female and her two cubs of two years. How José saw the face of the first cub peering out from dense scrub as we sped along the road is a mystery to us all. But he did, and here were two fat, sleek cubs, playing together. We took to a hill above them for a better view. They drifted away, slinking through the bushes and sometimes skipping over one another in lithe leaps. Unbeknown to us (though we were aware she must be nearby), their mother had stayed much closer to us, shielding her cubs. She slipped from almost under our feet and was seen by some as she crossed a hill to rejoin her young.

An old male called Camello, meaning camel. In an almost equally brilliant stroke José spotted a dead guanaco close to the road at the start of the afternoon. It was freshly killed and, to keep away condors, brush had been piled over the wound where the puma had begun to eat. We resolved to come back later when the culprit would most likely return to the scene of the crime. Our plans were immediately scuppered by an hour spent with one rear wheel spinning ineffectively in a hole, digging ever deeper into the soft ground. Sprung from our predicament by a helpful passing lorry, we visited Laguna Azul and pointed our optics at white-winged coots, silvery grebes, yellow-billed pintail and Chiloé wigeon. As the day grew old we went back to the kill and found a puma on it, right by the road. A vehicle too soon sent the animal into the scrubby hill, so we took a trail to find it. In perhaps the most thrilling encounter yet, in the glowing evening light this richly red old male (named Camello because his high shoulders and hips, and his low-slung back, give the impression of humps) walked right by us in the open.

Mocha's mother. As soon as we returned to our bus, leaving Camello in peace in a patch of scrub in which he had taken refuge, José, who had stayed on the hill, found a puma. We assumed it was Camello, again on the move now we had gone. But over the crackly radio we heard José's voice saying that the puma was behaving as though it were in heat. My superb colleague Cristofer is a vet and I have a passing acquaintance with mammal biology; we were surprised to hear that an old male puma should be in heat. It was another puma. We raced to the place, as fast as our group could shift and saw a lustrous female puma, also a rich red, moving up the hill opposite. On what José later told us was only the third occasion he has heard it in more than twenty years spent with pumas, the female then called to her hidden cubs. The sound, in the cold vastness of evening in this spectacular place, was stirring and strange. Later, having watched her weave over the hill, hiding the trail to her cubs, until dusk had almost fallen, we heard from José (who had looked closely at his photos) that this was the mother of the area's two most confident pumas: Mocha, whose name reflects the fact that half of her tail has been missing since birth, and Sarmiento, the very female whom, with her cubs, we had seen at the start of the afternoon.

So much for being brief. These are clumsy, blurted words and I'm too tired and out-of-time to make them better. Today has been an extraordinary day, on which we have seen eight individual pumas, including three generations of the same family, on which a thick-coated rusty female puma crossing an evening hillside was the 150th wild cat I have seen this year.

It is half-past-eleven and time for bed. Tomorrow by seven we will already be at the kill. Unless José's unparalleled eyes find other pumas on our way there. After today, nothing would surprise me.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii                3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                    3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus            2
lion Panthera leo nubica                              78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                       3
jungle cat Felis chaus                                   2
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                            13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                    4
lion Panthera leo persica                              7
leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis           15
flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps          1
wildcat hybrid Felis silvestris grampia/catus  1
jaguar Panthera onca                                    8
puma Puma concolor                                    10

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