- Human-wildlife conflict has caused a decline in the puma population in parts of Argentinian Patagonia, research shows.
- One of Patagonia’s emblematic species, the puma is treated very differently by Argentina and Chile, the two countries that share the region.
- The Argentinian province of Chubut pays a puma bounty to incentivize the hunting of pumas, as a measure to counter livestock killings.
- Chile has outlawed puma hunting and has found a delicate balance between ranching and conservation.
“As a boy, my father killed pumas,” says Vincente Navarra, whose family has been raising sheep against the backdrop of Argentina’s Patagonian wilderness for generations. Navarra, a 71-year-old rancher who raises livestock on Patagonia’s Chilean side was the first in his family to cross the border to produce wool there.
Not many people can endure the harsh conditions of Patagonia, a region spread across more than 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles), split between Chile to the west and Argentina to the east. Ranchers are among them. But pumas’ appetite for livestock has made it difficult for ranchers to peacefully share a territory with the big cat.
“We were taught to fear the puma and that made it easier to hunt them,” Navarra tells Mongabay about Patagonia’s biggest predator and its relationship with the ranchers inhabiting the region.
He remembers discovering three of his lambs killed by a puma on his ranch. “It was disturbing to see that because our sheep are not pets. They are our jobs and our lives. Without them we don’t have money,” Navarra says.
Pumas (Puma concolor) were once persecuted throughout Patagonia, regardless of the country, as ranchers hunted the big cats to protect their livestock. Now, the puma’s fate changes depending on which side of the border you’re in. In Chile, a puma might run into wildlife photographers and park rangers. Cross over to the east into Argentina, and it might be greeted with poison, traps, and gunfire.
The pest of the east
Pumas are opportunistic carnivores whose diets largely depend on prey availability and abundance. In the wild, they hunt coatis, hares, deer, guanacos and tapirs, but in areas with abundant livestock, like Patagonia, horses, sheep and goats become easy targets. According to park officials in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, a single puma can kill several sheep, calves, goats and foals in a night — a considerable financial blow to a rancher’s bottom line, particularly for those practicing agriculture on a smaller scale.
In the Argentinian province of Chubut, where Navarra grew up, pumas are considered a pest. “Many ranchers, myself included, thought of them as a plague,” Navarra tells Mongabay. “If your animals die, whether it is from a predator or a disease, it’s all the same. I thought of pumas as a plague for many years because of what they could do to my sheep.”
Argentina is a top exporter of beef and wool, producing most of it in Patagonia, where, in the 20th century, natural habitat was converted into ranchland to accommodate growing livestock populations. But as sheep gained more territory, they started pushing out native species, including the puma’s wild prey, such as guanacos, forcing the feline to look for food elsewhere — usually among farmers’ livestock.
After Navarra discovered the dead lambs and word got out that a puma might be around, he remembers the ranchers resorting to strychnine, a poisonous chemical often used as a pesticide. “I think they were using the poison to kill any puma before it could kill their animals,” Navarra says. “After that, I didn’t see signs of any puma for a long time. It was years before I saw one again in Chubut.”
In the northern part of Patagonia, goat herders lose an average of 6% of their capital in livestock each year because of pumas, according to data from the Wildlife Conservation Society Argentina. That’s a number that some expect to increase if puma habitat in Patagonia continues to decline. A 2017 study estimated that every year the average ranch loses roughly $3,400 because of puma attacks.
Historically, Argentinian law has supported the war against pumas. In 1905, the government passed a law that listed the felines as varmints, which made puma hunting, trapping and poisoning common in the provinces of Chubut and Rio Negro.
Bounty payouts for a puma pelts remain legal in parts of Argentina, which has led to worrying population declines in Argentinian Patagonia, said Martin Font, communications director for conservation nonprofit Fundacion Vida Silvestre. Puma bounties, now legal in four provinces, including Chubut and Rio Negro, were introduced in 1995 in an effort to protect livestock. With Chubut still serving as Argentina’s foremost sheep-ranching province, local authorities updated Chubut’s bounty payouts in 2021 to pay ranchers 5,000 pesos ($30) per puma and 1,000 pesos ($6) per Andean fox (Lycalopex culpaeus). In May 2021, provincial authorities announced they had purchased and distributed 550 puma traps to ranchers. According to the 2017 study, a total of about 2,000 puma bounties are paid each year between the provinces of Chubut, Rio Negro and Neuquén.
Chilean park officials have reported cases of Argentinians, eager to cash in on the puma bounty, crossing the border into Chile to illegally hunt the cats, though these cases are fewer and data is limited.
Puma hunters in both Chile and Argentina kill up to 100 pumas each year, according to Nicolas Lagos Silva, conservation researcher for the puma program at global wild cat conservation NGO Panthera. Each kill pays out between $50 and $400 depending on the country, province and employer; in addition to the bounties offered by provincial authorities in Argentina, ranchers will sometimes pay hunters themselves to exterminate the cats, Lagos Silva says.
In Chile, it was once far more common to spot a dead puma than a living one, according to Heriberto Yaeger, a park ranger in Torres del Paine National Park. “The Laguna Amarga ranch which borders the park was once exclusively dedicated to raising sheep. This made the pumas the worst enemy of the ranchers,” Yaeger tells Mongabay.
But in 1980, the Chilean government prohibited the hunting of pumas. Coupled with the added protection of Torres del Paine National Park, puma populations bounced back in Chile, particularly within the park’s boundaries, according to a 2021 study. The park’s current population estimates vary between 50 and 200 pumas, Torres del Paine, officials told Mongabay. Within Torres del Paine, officials estimate there are between 50 and 100 cats, though an exact figure remains uncertain.
Chile has successfully helped ranchers and pumas coexist. Using guard dogs and enclosing sheep at night helps minimize puma attacks, according to park rangers. Building anti-predation fences has also been promoted in hopes of mitigating the ongoing conflict. And it’s not just pumas; all native carnivores are under legal protection in Chile, meaning that lethal means of dealing with pumas or foxes could get a rancher into trouble. Provincial authorities help ranchers obtain nonlethal means to mitigate attacks, though the extent of such support varies by province, a 2019 study found.
“Chile today is much different than Argentina when it comes to ranching with pumas around,” Navarra says. “I have not lost any sheep since I came to Chile, but even if I did, it’d be illegal for me to retaliate.”
Some ranchers have even given up ranching in favor of becoming ecotourism operators, taking high-paying tourists into the field to watch and photograph the very cats they once hunted.
The rise in ecotourism in Chile has made puma conflicts less frequent, park officials say. All of the ranches surrounding Chile’s Laguna Amarga, once a place dominated by sheep ranching, have converted their properties into ecotourism lodges, Yaeger says. As a result, puma hunting is virtually unheard of today within the bounds of Laguna Amarga and Torres del Paine.
“There are ranchers today that see the puma as an important element of the ecosystem and that it must be protected,” Lagos Silva says. “Some ranches have sought economic alternatives such as puma sighting tourism, as a way to obtain an economic benefit by having pumas within their ranches. More ranchers are starting to see pumas as an animal that can bring them economic benefits, so the puma is protected.”
The fate of Patagonia’s big cats
In the mid-1900s, pumas were largely erased from the Argentinian steppe in Patagonia. But when human populations in rural areas began to decline, Patagonia’s top predator began to return. WCS Argentina found that pumas reclaimed roughly 91% of their original territory in just 10 years once human encroachment had stopped.
The pumas of Patagonia have made a considerable rebound in recent decades, partly due to a decline in wool production in Chile and Argentina, coupled with a rise in ecotourism. While this has been celebrated by environmentalists, many ranchers, particularly in Argentina, have not been as pleased. The puma’s comeback has led some ranchers to view the animals as an invasive species.
Some NGOs, including WCS Argentina and Panthera, have stepped up in Argentina to try to emulate Chile’s conservation efforts, focusing to shift puma consumption of domesticated livestock to native prey like the guanaco. But even if the conflict between humans and pumas eases, the felines and their habitat remain at risk.
Livestock, and particularly sheep raising, has caused significant land degradation in Patagonia, affecting soil quality and native flora and fauna, according to a 2000 study. While the Chilean government has helped rewild its share of Patagonia, Argentina is still not quite there. Some cases in Argentina’s Chubut province indicate that measures aimed at restoring native ecosystems and the wildlife inhabiting them, like the puma, would be more welcomed by ranchers if they were involved in conservation as equals and even consultants.
“To protect the puma, people must care,” Navarra says. “Conservation really should involve everyone, from the government official to the rancher. As a boy, I was frightened by the puma. As a man, I was angry at the puma. Today, I worry about the puma.”
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Banner image: A puma in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Image by Cristian Sepúlveda.
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