Anyone that knows me or my photography knows I love photographing animals in the wild. All of the wildlife images on my website have been captured in the wild and that is something very important to me. Part of it is capturing the actual image, but seeing how animals act in there natural environment is an experience I relish. I have been lucky enough to have traveled all over this great big world, and have seen quite a variety of fauna. Until a few weeks ago, pumas (cougars) were high on the list of animals I wanted to encounter and photograph.
I just returned from Chile scouting locations to take a photo workshop in 2016. A little more than half of the trip will take place in Torres del Paine in southern Chile. This park is quintessential Patagonia. Windswept landscapes, rugged mountains and a host of wildlife you won’t see many other places just scratch the surface of this amazing place. I knew there was a population of pumas dotting the national park, but being one of the more discreet apex predators, my hopes weren’t high for seeing them in person. When we arrived I spent quite a bit of time talking to a ranger in the park about possible habitats. She referred me to an area where two pumas had been known to feed on guanaco (a llama like animal). I had some time to kill before I started my trekking within the park, so I hiked up to the area she mentioned. Within a 10 minutes of hiking I was already encountering guanaco carcasses and bones. It was like a grave yard up there. Still too early in the day for a puma spotting, I made my way back down with plans to return here after my trek was complete.
At the end of my trek I encountered a buddy of mine that guides in the park and relayed my “puma hunting” plans to him. He told me there were actually a couple of pumas known to hunt hares at dusk not too far from the campgrounds I was staying in, much closer than the first area I was told about. This news got me pretty excited. After dropping my bags in my tent and eating a quick meal of dehydrated backpacking food, I set off with telephoto lens in hand (unfortunately I left the largest lens in a town near by for weight concerns during my trek).
As I walked into the hills behind my campsite, hares were running out of every corner you could see and over the crest of a hill in front of me. I decided to follow the hopping puma buffet for a bit and see what I found. As I crested the second small hill I saw a bit of movement in the distance about 500ft (150m) away. Much to my surprise a puma was staring directly at me. My fight or flight instinct kicked in and I successfully beat down my first instinct to get the hell out of there. I moved a bit closer to a few small trees to inhibit another one sneaking up on me and began observing. A second puma started walking towards the first one which stopped caring about me and offered a newly caught hare to its companion. The photo you see to the left was my first encounter in the wild with pumas, and a memorable one at that! After shooting this scene for a bit and not wanting to tempt fate too much longer, I slowly started to back away from this pair. Once out of sight and with a safe distance between us I ran down to grab my friends and tell them about my encounter. Upon hearing this one of them came back with me to try and get a few images himself. By the time we made it back to the same spot, the pumas were gone. Not knowing where they had roamed to, we left the area to safer grounds.
Not too much later we decided to head back and try and find the pair again. We made it about a third of the way back to my previous siting area when we found one of them on a hillside. We slowly followed the puma for a moment when it joined up with its companion again and kept walking for a bit. The two pumas, obviously not caring about my friend and me, laid down on the hillside about 60 ft away from us to digested their dinner. After a while my friend and I left the two pumas and retreated to our campground still in disbelief that we were able to share such a rare experience with two amazing and powerful animals.