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Pumas and people on BCI: purrr-fect together

August 11, 2008

Pumas and people on BCI: purrr-fect together

When Greg and I started putting cameras in the forest of BCI in 1994 we knew we were opening a window in the lives of animals that we rarely observed by walking the trails

When Greg [Willis] and I started putting cameras in the forest of BCI in 1994 we knew we were opening a window in the lives of animals that we rarely observed by walking the trails.

Our first roll of film was black-and-white, which I developed in the stuffy, cluttered darkroom next to the old lounge. We had 35 pictures of a palm frond waving in the dry-season breezes under a Dipteryx tree.

The 36th photo was a mature female ocelot dashing across the camera's field of view. She appeared again regularly in our photo study during the next nine years. Who could say how long ocelots live in the wild until the photo evidence showed long-term evidence from animals living undisturbed in the forest?

Ever since we began the first mammal census season on BCI after Greg's had a face-to-face encounter with a jaguar on Wheeler Trail in 1983, we were convinced that it was erroneous to call BCI a "zoo without cages" or an island that has lost its significant predators.

Although the jaguar sightings have remained few and far between and never on film, it is from the camera results other cat species that gave us pause (forgive the pun!)

Ocelots were abundant at a density among the highest recorded anywhere, and there were also jaguarundis, margays, and pumas.

Cats in Panama are hunted heavily, according to our former field assistant and now senior Wildlife Conservation Society researcher, Ricardo Moreno. Cats are very cautious in Panama, or they are dead.

Any cats swimming to BCI have been careful to avoid humans, hence the difficulty in monitoring their movements and numbers.

[Frank M.] Chapman in 1927-28 documented on film an assortment of species on BCI, including pumas. But camera studies were not continued over the following decades and pumas were seen only infrequently and perhaps not at all after the 1960's.

Greg and others found various signs of cats that indicated we were missing something: hence the camera study.

Indeed, we were soon purring like pumas (which are one of the very few cat species that do purr, and very loudly!) In 1998 and periodically afterwards we captured pumas in photos on BCI.

Unlike the ocelots pumas have less distinctive pelts, so are hard to identify as individuals, but we thought that perhaps three individuals, one with the faint spots of a young animal, were all walking around, checking fruiting trees soon after Bonifacio De Leon counted fruits, and quietly passing along the trails in the wake of hordes of scientists.

The guardabosques sometimes saw them at night and 50-hectare plot-workers sometimes saw one in the daytime, but otherwise the pumas have been very invisible.

Deer carcasses betrayed their meals. Brocket deer grew uncharacteristically cautious on trails and so did coatis, but by and large, this was an invisible invasion.

After all, how does a 500-pound tapir disappear in the forest? Our cameras show they are there and quite common and active, but steering clear of humans.

We are glad to be able to document the peaceful existence of pumas beside people on BCI. The BCI pumas are fat and healthy and well-fed, and not at all likely to attack people.

Greg and I have done a camera study in the Gallon Jug area of Belize, a preserve known for a high density of five species of cats from jaguars to jaguarundis.

The Belizean pumas are very lean, and the prey species stay off the trails, away from the cruising cats. In the 20+ years that eco-tourists have walked those trails in the company of big cats, no one has ever been threatened or attacked.

Were the bigger cats always on BCI and we couldn't be sure? We don't know, but they are there now. Do they live on BCI all year round? Don't know that either. But the accompanying photos show that they are often present and usually unseen.

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