How Tourism Is Helping Save Pumas in Patagonia

Some ranchers and cats have found a way to coexist.

Puma in Patagonia
Puma population numbers are decreasing.

Mark Elbroch / Panthera

After years of hostilities, ranchers and pumas in Patagonia might have found a way to peacefully coexist thanks to tourists, a new study finds. 

For 150 years, the relationship between ranchers and pumas in Patagonia has been a fractious one. That’s when settlers moved in to start using the land for sheep farming and pumas began preying on livestock.

Herders would shoot, poison, or trap the pumas—also known as mountain lions and panthers—when they stole their livelihood.

“It is important to mention that in Chilean Patagonia, illegal puma hunting has been supported unanimously by both ranchers and government agencies in charge of managing and protecting wildlife because of the belief that the practice provided employment for puma hunters, protected livestock, and generally supported the idea that people needed to care for themselves rather than rely upon government agencies to do so,” Omar Ohrens, an author of the study and conservation scientist for Panthera’s Puma Program, tells Treehugger.

Panthera is a global organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their ecosystems.

One method that is easing the conflict is predator tourism. Tourists head to the area in and around Torres del Paine National Park (TDP) in southern Patagonia to observe pumas in their natural habitat.

“Approximately 20 years ago, the practice took off due to interest from wildlife photographers who began spotting pumas in open steppe habitat in and around TDP,” Ohrens says. “In recent years, however, predator tourism in the area has grown rapidly due to new interest from tourists to see pumas in the wild, with local tourism agencies offering appealing vacation packages exclusively for puma observations.”

Pumas are listed as "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) but their population trend is decreasing. There's not enough information for specific details on their population in Chile.

Changing Attitudes

rancher with sheep in Patagonia
Rancher with sheep in Patagonia. Rafael Hoogesteijn / Panthera

For the study, Ohrens and his colleagues looked at interviews that were conducted in the area about 6-9 years before the growth of puma tourism, which started in 2014. They compared those responses to interviews collected from 45 ranches in 2018, after the burst of predator tourism.

They found that tourism increased tolerance for pumas. The results were published in the journal Biological Conservation

“For instance, we found that rancher attitudes changed from one universally negative about pumas to one in which almost all ranchers believe that pumas are an important part of their Patagonia heritage,” Ohrens says. “In addition, ranchers changed their beliefs from one unanimously in favor of the illegal killing of pumas to one in which only half of the ranchers supported the killing of pumas.”

Ranchers who live closest to the national park benefit the most from tourism but still had neighbors who had great losses. Those ranchers who still support the killing of pumas are those who suffer economic hardships and lose the most animals from puma predation.

“We found that predator tourism appeared to be central to changing attitudes and improving tolerance for pumas. For instance, ranchers exhibited near complete consensus in their belief that puma tourism is a beneficial activity for ranchers,” Ohrens says. 

“Nevertheless, tourism also appears to be creating a division between ranchers who do and do not reap economic benefits from puma tourism and has the greatest potential for conflict among ranchers with regards to the killing of pumas.”

The researchers believe there are some good alternatives that could potentially avoid conflict between ranchers.

“First, we concluded that tourism is not a universal solution to puma conservation and therefore suggested a landscape-scale conservation approach that would require a mixed-mitigation strategy. For instance, alternative strategies to offset the direct costs of livestock losses, such as puma tourism, non-lethal methods, and financial instruments might help to overcome existing discord,” he says.

They say that puma tourism is likely an effective solution in open habitats, in and around the Torres del Paine National Park.

“In addition, we proposed a community and managed compensation insurance program where tourism revenues are shared as a means of addressing the growing divide between those financially benefiting from pumas and those that suffer economically from the protection of pumas,” Ohrens says. 

“However, this option is more complex and requires more time to implement as it would need the full participation and support of ranchers, tourism operators, and wildlife and agricultural agencies. This would move the focus to strategies, such as non-lethal methods (e.g., Livestock Guarding Dogs, other deterrents), where some are already in place and might contribute in their implementation to a wider community in the short term.”

One way that conservation groups stepped in to help protect both livestock and pumas is with guardian dogs. They bond with the sheep starting as puppies and become very protective of them.

The dogs live with the sheep 24/7 to protect them against predators, which in turn protects the pumas from being hunted by ranchers.

“Livestock guardian dogs … have been implemented by a few ranchers individually, and were described in our study as an effective measure of protecting sheep on ranches in which owners are willing to invest in their training and ongoing support,” Ohrens says.

“We think that having some strategies effectively implemented by a few ranchers, and serving as model ranches might help to encourage other ranchers in their implementation and, ultimately, help create better community coexistence with pumas.”

View Article Sources
  1. Ohrens, Omar, et al. "Predator Tourism Improves Tolerance for Pumas, but May Increase Future Conflict Among Ranchers in Chile." Biological Conservation, vol. 258, 2021, p. 109150., doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109150

  2. "Our Mission." Panthera.

  3. Nielsen, C., et al. "Puma." IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2014, doi:10.2305/