An Exotic Safari Like None Other

PUMATribes across the Americas have given it many names?mountain lion, cougar, panther. In South America, it?s called puma, the Incan word for powerful and strong. Pumas can jump 18 feet in the air and run as fast as 50 miles per hour. They kill their prey, mostly deer, by jumping onto the animal?s back and biting through its neck. Pumas are the farthest-ranging animals in the Western Hemisphere, living from the top of Alaska to the southern tip of Chile, where we are now, in Torres del Paine National Park, known for its snow-topped mountains and milky aquamarine lakes. The landscape is so stunning it seems unreal. As we drive up, our photographer, Ben, says, ?This looks like Mordor.?

Pumas are solitary and shy by nature, and finding one in the wild without the help of a professional guide is almost impossible. Our tracker, Jorge, spotted a young female this morning, so now we?re crouched on a hill dotted with prickly, yellow-green scrub. The cat is lying 30 yards away in the grass. The two triangles of her ears emerge from the high, swaying blades. Her black snout rises on occasion to sniff the air. This is the second puma we?ve seen in two days. Yesterday, I saw one walking by the side of the road. ?It?s right there!? I said, not believing that something so wild could be so close. As I fumbled for my camera, the animal slipped into the bushes. All I caught were her undulating haunches as she disappeared.

The park service employees have named this puma Mocho (?chopped?), because she?s tailless. If Mocho cares that we?re watching her with binoculars and taking pictures, she keeps it to herself. She has something else on her mind. You can see it in her stance?low, crouched, alert. Her eyes are trained on a half-dozen guanacos about 50 yards away. One has strayed from the herd; pumas are always looking for such an opportunity.

The guanacos cover the park. Ancestors to the llama, they have shaggy, brown manes and long, thin necks and move with the gentle dullard quality of deer. Because pumas stalk their prey at night and in the twilight hours, seeing one kill a guanaco is rare. In the mid-1990s, wildlife cinematographer Hugh Miles spent two years filming a puma in Torres del Paine for National Geographic Video and never once saw such a showdown. The park has transformed in the decades since his visit. Ecotourism has arrived, bringing five-star hotels and a budding photo safari industry, and the pumas here have grown more accustomed to humans.

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