Tuesday, 6 October 2015


José is a short, slight man with silvering hair and a neat moustache. He speaks with a Patagonian accent so thick that at times he is hard to understand. For twenty-five years he has watched the pumas of Torres del Paine, his swift brown eyes darting across the landscape, and for eighteen years he has been a park guard here. He knows the pumas of the park better than anyone. It might be no exaggeration to say that he knows pumas better than anyone else in the world.

Readers in the UK may well have seen the very recent BBC film which featured a mother puma and two cubs. Certainly most of my group arrived having seen it, having fallen for these gorgeous cubs. It was José who guided the BBC crew to the pumas, as he has led, guided and been filmed by innumerable crews over his many years in the park. It was one of his sons, also both expert trackers, who first saw these cubs, the offspring of the Laguna Larga female. Since then José and his family have seen them many times.

This morning speaks of the Patagonian spring. The sun is bright and, as there is no wind, the snow-covered mountains are divinely reflected in the meltwater lakes of this beauteous place. There are upland geese by the roadside and white-tufted grebes disturbing the zen-calm water with their dives.

We visit Laguna Amarga, the main park entrance and one of the best sites for seeing pumas. A Chilean flicker clings to the bottom of a window and taps its reflection; a Chilean swallow - arriving this far south for the coming spring - crouches on a park office roof; on the black beaches of the river below there are Chiloé wigeon; but we see no puma.

It is time to turn home for breakfast. It is only so long that even the most dedicated group can cope with the cold without caffeine and calories. As we reach Laguna Larga, the Cuernos del Paine reflected in painful perfection in its waters, José's body language, ever relaxed and affable, becomes in a moment focused and taut. 'Puma', he says and there on a slope is a stretched buffy form in the early sun. We raise binoculars; there are two; there are three, one clearly a well grown cub. They slip over the brow and we follow. Crossing the hillside there we see a mother and two cubs of more than a year, a large male and a slight female: the cubs José found for the BBC, with whom my clients had fallen in love just days before in the UK.

The pumas sit for a while and glow in the gilt morning light. They move and from above a guanaco whinnies in alarm again and again. Into the valley they go, one of the cubs - the male I think - breaking into chase as they disappear. A hare (European, introduced) bolts from the valley towards us. The cub had been playing at hunting.

With the pumas gone we head home. As yesterday, I translate José's experience of this landscape and its pumas to our clients. I ask whether he was ever truly afraid of the puma. 'Once,' he replies, 'when five of them had me surrounded.' I ask how he got out of that scrape. 'Shitting myself.' he says, and I translate.

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                                    5

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