A.Reaching a fence post that sticks out like a needle out of the prairie, conservation advisor Nicolás Lagos assembles an LED fixture that will be placed on the pillar and at dusk a eerie multi-colored display will emanate across the frozen Patagonian valley. The lights emit random 360-degree patterns visible from a mile away. Known as Foxlights, they emulate the movement of human torches and scare off pumas that threaten 20,000 sheep at nearby Estancia Cerro Guido, on the outskirts of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
LEDs are just one part of efforts to spread a polarizing conflict over big cats. “Talking about success with deterrents to ranchers who have always killed pumas is not enough,” says Lagos, who is working on the project on the 100-hectare farm. Cerro Guido Ranch. “With solid results, we hope to start changing attitudes.”
Alongside the Foxlights, a completely different deterrent is being tested: maremma dogs.
Maremmas are highly specialized sheepdogs; innate caretakers who weigh 45kg and have fluffy white coats that match their woolen canopies in size and appearance. Dogs are born among flocks of sheep, imprinting on them and creating an early protective bond between species. For centuries they have deterred wolves in Italy. They are now proving effective in protecting sheep from cougars, which are ambush predators and flee when exposed. Dogs are nomadic and roam where the pack goes.
After introducing the maremmas in 2017, Estancia Cerro Guido experienced a 30% drop in the slaughter of sheep. He has also had success with seven Foxlights since February.
Fox lights are automatically charged by solar panels and were invented thousands of miles away by Australian farmer Ian Whalan, who designed them to deter foxes. They are being used in southern Chile after Omar Ohrens, a conservation scientist with the New York big cat NGO, Panthera, I tested them successfully in the north of Chile, helping Aymara indigenous herders protect llamas and alpacas.
But provable data is being sought to convince others to follow the lead of non-lethal deterrents in Chile’s Magallanes region, where pumas have been hunted for nearly 150 years, since the introduction of sheep.
La estancia and Panthera are tracking ad hoc use of Foxlights and maremma dogs with a four-year experiment launched in March that will collect data from a carefully controlled 5,000-hectare section of the ranch. Four maremmas are already in operation, and in October, when the sheep move to the summer fields, they will introduce 20 monitored Foxlights. The frequency and behavior of the cougars will also be recorded by camera traps and GPS collars.
“Sheep are a business for these people,” says Lagos. “Numbers mean everything, so our data has to be good.”
The project director, Pia Vergara, has been photographing pumas for 18 years in Patagonia. One of the best places to see them is in Torres del Paine and its surroundings. She believes the project could help restore environmental balance in Magallanes. “Non-lethal measures are leading local individuals to return to natural food sources, such as guanacos, rheas and hares, which is better for the ecosystem,” he says.
In a study, led by Ohrens45 ranchers interviewed said that cougars accounted for a costly 19% of annual sheep losses. However, when the co-investigators counted the figures, it was only 0.5% of the tenure losses. “There is a mismatch between perception and reality, and we want to objectify what really happens,” says Vergara.
Coexistence on the site was first imagined in 2013. The ranch owners, the Simunovic and Matetic families, noticed a growing demand for cougar tourism and wanted to combine it with livestock and align with conservation efforts, which increased to early 2000s in Chile.
Pumas, also known as pumas, among dozens of other names, span almost the entire latitude of the Americas. They are the main predator in Chile with an important role in biodiversity and ecological resilience, despite being the “least concern” in the IUCN Red List.
“It’s difficult to get reliable figures with such an elusive cat,” says Ohrens. “Estimates like those of the IUCN speak of the world population, but do not take into account the local ones that may be threatened.”
Pumas have been protected in Chile since the 1980s, but are still hunted in the farmlands surrounding Torres del Paine by lions (male lions) – Patagonian hunters with dogs. There are no formal estimates on how many cougars are killed, but ongoing clandestine hunts are common knowledge. “This area has been cattle for 150 years and it is a tradition to kill cougars,” says Ohrens. “Lion farmers have a revered status, and for some it is even a form of employment.”
Ohrens’ study provides some evidence that Chile’s tourism push is changing the attitude of local ranchers towards pumas. He and his team compared interviews with ranchers before and after the tourism boom began, between 2005 and 2018, and found that many now recognize the puma as important to the Patagonian heritage.
Tourism has created lucrative opportunities for those offering high-end packages with guides and equipment, and some ranches have completely switched to these companies. But many are reluctant to favor ancient practices.
One suggestion has been to share the income from cougar tourism to compensate farmers who lose sheep to predators. “However, the evidence suggests that financial incentives do little to change attitudes,” says Ohrens. “Everything has to be tested, and convincing different groups to agree to share the income is not easy.
“Using practical examples of what is possible could serve as an incentive for other farmers, which can later become a social norm. That’s when things really seem to change.”