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On the Trail of a Puma

Brian Jansen and Emiliano Donadio take body measurements on an adult female puma. Photo by Arthur Middleton.
Brian Jansen and Emiliano Donadio take body measurements on an adult female puma. Photo by Arthur Middleton.

Three years after becoming entranced by the world of the world’s smallest camel, the vicuña, Arthur Middleton returns to San Guillermo, Argentina with photographer Joe Riis to learn more about these unusual animals and to share their adventures here.

Throughout most of its range, the puma is an absent presence. You know it’s there, and once in a while you see its tracks in the mud or the snow. Yet the animal itself remains a mystery.

Not so at San Guillermo, and certainly not this week. We’ve been seeing pumas everywhere.

We saw the first of them four nights ago as we made our way back from the field. We were so deeply absorbed in small talk – something about the night life in Mendoza city – that we nearly missed seeing her altogether.

Our photographer Joe Riis broke in: “STOP THE TRUCK.” The brakes squeaked. We saw her, and she saw us. All across the plain, vicunas gave the alarm with their high, staccato whinny. The puma turned to inspect us, coming well within 100 yards. Her coat seemed dark in the low evening light. Soon, she slipped away into the nearby rocks.

The next day, we saw two more pumas walking up a sandy canyon in the midday sun. Later we found their tracks skirting a nearby meadow. One of them had taken a detour through a crumbling Incan ruin.

One morning, on our drowsy drive into the field, we saw green eyes shine in our headlights. Then, we could all see a puma vanish into the darkness of the plain.

Then we started catching them.

We caught the first, a 110-pound adult male, only half a mile from the facility where we sleep each night. Two days later, we caught a 75-pound adult and a 60-pound yearling female. And last night, under the full moon here, we caught two more. One was a 132-pound male, at least 10 years old, with forearms as big as my leg and scars testifying to a decade of battles with other pumas. The other one we caught was a 70-pound female, about seven years old. Every one of them was in top condition, living large on the flesh of the vicuna.

To catch pumas safely, we’ve brought an expert with us. Dr. Brian Jansen is a specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department who has caught hundreds of pumas in desert and mountain environments. We also have tremendous support from the Parks Administration’s rangers that patrol San Guillermo. Without all this help, we’d be empty-handed.

A young female puma is fitted with a satellite collar. The collar will gather details locations for two years, then fall off. Photo by Brian Jansen.
A young female puma is fitted with a satellite collar. The collar will gather details locations for two years, then fall off. Photo by Brian Jansen.

We’re catching these pumas so we can collar them. And for the next two years, their collars will send us locations via satellite, allowing us to locate their kills. We hope to map out the riskiest places for vicunas on this landscape to help us better understand vicuna behavior, and explore the possible cascading consequences in the food webs of Andean ecosystems.

Today, in the big meadow, we spotted another puma sneaking off through the tall grasses. It had made a kill nearby. Two condors hung in the sky above. A long, serpentine drag mark led from the carcass to the site of the vicuna’s final struggle. It looks like this will be another busy week on the trail of the puma.

In the foreground, you can see evidence of a vicuna’s final struggle. The killer puma then dragged it to the meadow, to hide it from condors and perhaps from other pumas. Photo  by Arthur Middleton.
In the foreground, you can see evidence of a vicuna’s final struggle. The killer puma then dragged it to the meadow, to hide it from condors and perhaps from other pumas. Photo by Arthur Middleton.

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