For the most part mountain lions remain misunderstood by the majority of the public and, in most places in North America these cats are still very highly persecuted. Naturally shy with complex social lives, mountain lions (sometimes called cougars or pumas depending on geographic location) are animals that would really prefer to avoid humans if at all possible. In a world dominated by a singular powerful species they are doing their best to try to coexist and navigate through a web of set rules that they cannot possibly hope to master. Survival for these wild cats has become that much harder with mounting pressure in the forms climate change, habitat loss/fragmentation, prey loss, human-wildlife conflict, hunting, animal agriculture, and even media sensationalism – all which threaten their existence. Thankfully more and more research, which also confirms their invaluable role as ecosystem engineers, in North America is helping to shed light on why we need them and why we need to protect them. But what about the species lesser known relatives in South America?
Proyecto Carnívoros Australes is one group currently conducting studies in central Chile in an area that is relatively new to puma research, a region that is also designated one of the world’s top biodiversity’s hotspots. I recently interviewed project leader Christian Osorio, a PhD student of Dr. Marcella Kelly’s Wildlife Habitat and Population Analysis Lab*in Virginia, to find out more about his groups important work and what they hope to accomplish for the species in central Chile.
Why did you decided to focus on Pumas in central Chile?
Pumas are the most successful terrestrial mammals in the whole world with a range extending more than 100º latitude from Alaska to the Straits of Magellan. They live in a huge variety of habitats such as forests, deserts, shrub-lands, timber plantations and elevations from the coastline up to 4,500 meters above sea level. Nevertheless, puma research and conservation in Chile primarily focuses in the southernmost part like Torres del Paine National Park and surrounding areas and recently in the northernmost areas of the High Andean Plateau.
Camera-trap on high-elevation Andean grasslands within a private Natural Reserve, central Chile. Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)
The anthropogenic pressures in central Chile, specifically in the Maule Region from sea level to the high Andes, is increasingly strong and landscapes are heavily fragmented with extensive intensive timber plantations. Livestock breeding is a primary industry in this region which means that livestock-carnivore conflict is increasing and, I have known of several retaliatory shooting events against pumas which are often not reported. Natural reserves and protected areas are key to providing habitat as well as a safe-space for wildlife, but it’s the private productive lands that compromise areas far larger than the protected areas in Chile. Proyecto Carnívoros Australes focuses on conducting science-based conservation and management in both protected and unprotected areas with a strong emphasis on human-wildlife conflict mitigation.1
How did Proyecto Carnívoros Australes come about?
I created Proyecto Carnívoros Australes during my doctoral research when I noticed there was a great need for carnivore research and conservation in central Chile, within the Chilean Winter Rainfall and Valdivian Forests Biodiversity Hotspot (CWR&VF). While working in the CWR&VF I had noticed that the threatened wildlife inhabiting the area required a long-term conservation effort far beyond a Ph.D. dissertation so, I decided to conduct long-term research and management in the area after I graduated. It was then that I also realized that it would require further funding and, after meeting with some colleagues I founded Proyecto Carnívoros Australes which we expect to turn into a lawful non-profit soon.
What is the Chilean Winter Rainfall and Valdivian Forests Biodiversity Hotspot and why is it important to conduct research there?
The CWR&VF is considered one of the worlds 25 biodiversity hotspots and this designation provides guidelines for global prioritization of conservation efforts. ‘Hotspots’ are areas that are biologically rich which means they have high variety of species, habitats and genetics, but they also tend to have high habitat loss and degradation rates. Thus, the CWR&VF comprises areas in which conservation and management are urgent.2,3
How does your study differ from research being done in southern Chile?
There are many differences between my study and others being conducted in southern Chile by Panthera, Fundacion Patagonia and others, all of which are very important and valuable by the way! I think with our research the most important difference is the situation and the surrounding context – besides natural reserves our study sites are located in productive areas with high human pressure, habitat fragmentation and very strong human-wildlife conflict, which differs slightly from the human-wildlife conflict in surrounding natural reserves. To my understanding the most interesting part of our project is that we are working in the natural protected reserves, to include all the wildlife there, and we are putting about half or maybe even more of our effort and energy into science-based conservation and management in the productive, non-protected areas.
Project leader Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop) setting camera trap on a private Natural Reserve, Andes Mountains of central Chile. Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)
What are the threats pumas face in Chile?
Pumas major threats in Chile are similar to the threats faced by them in the rest of the species distribution range – habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching of their wild prey, and retaliatory hunting due to actual or perceived livestock predation. Nevertheless, most of these threats are very complex and vary significantly from place to place. The human dimensions of conservation becomes key to understanding human-wildlife conflict and managing it properly. We understand that effective wildlife conservation goes far beyond biology, thus the work by our team-member Dr. Solange Vargas on human-dimensions will be key to the success of our conservation efforts.
Do you hope your research helps to foster better public attitudes towards pumas?
Our work with Dr. Vargas specifically aims in the direction of transforming conflict and generating a positive attitude by the community towards pumas and wildlife in general. We hope that appropriate management of conflicts decreases livestock predation rates leading to a more positive perception about wildlife while promoting coexistence. For that reason, we want to work on direct management and also education with adults, youth and children. We already generated a project to work on that and we hope we will have a positive response to move ahead in that direction in the next few years.
Is it a priority to encourage local ranchers to coexist better with pumas?
Yes, that is my hope especially as livestock ranchers are often affected by puma predation, which can be successfully prevented. That is our most important objective regarding conflict management. We want to help them to protect their livestock successfully from predators, with non-lethal management strategies which have been recently proven to be successful in Chile. Thus, we will be able to protect human activities and wildlife at the same time promoting coexistence.
How is your study is being conducted?
Our project has two main areas the first is puma ecology and research and, second is human-wildlife conflict management and mitigation. For the puma ecology part we aim to estimate puma density in different sites (productive-unprotected and protected areas) and assess habitat use/preference, which will be done mostly relying on camera-trap data. We need lots of camera-traps, currently we have around 60%-70% of the units we need, and we hope we will have the remainder by the end of this year.
Kodkod or guigna (Leopardus guigna). Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)
For the human-wildlife management part, besides perception assessment mainly using focus-groups and predation report data provided by the government, we aim to set non-lethal predator deterrents (FoxLight) devices. These lighting devices help to prevent livestock predation by carnivores without harming them avoiding retaliatory killing against pumas.
Have you considered partnering with a larger organization or wildlife conservation photographer to help tell the story of pumas in central Chile?
I am actually a wildlife photographer myself and I keep teaching a wildlife photography class at VT, but have kept my camera in the bag for a while for this project. I am open to collaborating with any person or organization willing to do it, but big NGOs like Panthera are prioritizing their work on other areas, which is good and necessary. I have received significant support from the Wild Felid Research and Management Association, of which I am an active member of, through some grants I have been awarded as a graduate student. I am currently working with independent film-makers in Chile in order to create a documentary film about the project, which hopefully will be available this year or early next year. Personally, I think it is important to focus on priority areas in which large wildlife conservation agencies are not currently working, like central Chile. There is a great need and there are great people willing to work on and support this conservation effort
What has the local support for your project been like?
This project is being conducted in direct cooperation with the local and national wildlife authorities, whose technical and logistical support has been essential to our work. Two wildlife biologists in addition to myself, two wildlife veterinarians, an archaeologist and two professional film-makers are currently are on our staff. One private natural reserve within the study area has provided significant financial and operational support, like horses, vehicles and guides, and, the private owners of the timber plantations within the study area have shown a really good attitude toward our project by allowing us access to their lands and providing valuable operational support.
Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)
You recently shared a study about non-lethal deterrents. Can you briefly explain how it will help pumas?
The study, published by Dr. Omar Ohrens et al, is a keystone of conflict management in Chile. I had the joy to work with Dr. Ohrens years ago in the first years of his research at the Chilean Andean Plateau. His study provides scientific evidence that the use of non-lethal lighting devices successfully prevents livestock predation events by pumas, which is very important because it goes beyond the functionality of the device itself. It proves that these devices are actually used by people and that they can be introduced into the traditional livestock-ranchers culture, which is the most critical issue with any management tool we could provide. It doesn’t matter how effective a management strategy is if the people in the community do not accept and apply it, it will be useless. Dr. Ohrens and his team demonstrated the factibility of this management approach and provided methodological guidelines to apply it and assess its success. Studying different scenarios of human-wildlife conflict and the available management tools, in the context in which Dr. Ohrens conducted his study, is the most similar to the situation in my study area. In comparison, the livestock breeding style in southernmost Chile in which the use of guard dogs has proven to be a successful deterrent, is somewhat different.
Tell me about the Proyecto Carnívoros Australes GoFundMe campaign
Crowdfunding support is very important because even though we are constantly applying most available grants only allow us to purchase equipment, they do not allow us to fund operational expenses like gasoline or food and if they do it is only allowed in limited amounts. Thus, we often spend our personal funds to buy batteries, food, load gasoline into the vehicle (which we borrow from a generous person) or to change oil. This means the funds received through our GoFundMe campaign are vital to help fund these and other operational expenses. We plan to keep the GoFundMe campaign open through the duration of the project.
Camera at burned timber plantation, coast of central Chile. Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)
Do you think there is a potential in the future for puma friendly tourism in central Chile similar to that in southern Chile?
I am not sure yet, I need to have robust data on puma abundances, population densities and trends before answering this question confidently. However, I think it might be doable if the pumas are doing good in the mountain ranges of central Chile and specifically in a couple of private reserves we are partnering with.
“The coastal ranges of our study area in central Chile were affected by huge (human caused) mega fires in the summer of 2017, which destroyed native forests and timber plantations. In the photo, burned land is being restored with native forest by Universidad de Chile.” Photo: Christian Osorio (@ctosoriop), Proyecto Carnívoros Australes (@carnivaustrales)
Anything else people should know about pumas in central Chile and your work?
There are two things – the first being that pumas share the habitat with smaller carnivores in the study area such as the Andean fox (Lycalopex culpaeus) and at least two small wild felids, the kodkod or guigna (Leopardus guigna) and the Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo). The second important part of our work is regarding the major human-caused wildfires that occurred in the summer of 2017 in central Chile. The fires burnt a large area of native forests besides the timber plantation and we are still trying to understand if carnivore populations were impacted by this event and whether it may further impact conflict with humans.