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Sphinx

    February 18, 2019

     Forty-five years in Montana, hiking the trails, skiing the mountains, driving the back roads, and I had never caught a glimpse of a mountain lion.  It's not that they are rare here—they aren't.  They live a pretty good life and at reasonable abundance, for a predator, eating deer and other prey, favoring rocky bluffs and deep forest,  occasionally showing up at the fringes of human settlement.  Many people see them by sheer happenstance—crossing the yard near a mountain cabin, at the edge of a ski area, along a foot trail just a mile from the parking lot.  But not me, ever.  It isn't that I'm extraordinarily unlucky, or obtuse (I hope), when it comes to observing elusive and formidable animals.  On the contrary, I've been privileged.  I've seen a Siberian tiger in the wild; but never a Montana cougar.  (For clarity: cougar, mountain lion, catamount, and puma are all synonyms for the same creature, Puma concolor by its scientific name, found from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes, the most broadly north-to-south-distributed big mammal, not counting humans, in the world.)  I've watched a Komodo dragon climb a cliff on the island of Komodo; but never a mountain lion crossing a dirt road in the Gallatins.  I've ogled saltwater crocs in Arnhem Land, leopards in Africa, Asiatic lions at Gir Forest in Gujarat, and grizzly bears in Yellowstone; but not one glimpse of the reigning big cat in the state where I live.  Finally, I had to go all the way to Patagonia National Park, in southern Chile, for that modest but satisfying experience.

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    I was there for National Geographic, researching a story on Tompkins Conservation, the vast philanthropic effort created by the late Doug Tompkins and his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins to buy and restore wildlish lands and give them, as national parks, to the peoples of Chile and Argentina.  One evening after dinner, Kris Tompkins asked me: Do you want to go spotlighting for puma?  Yes.  She arranged for Cristian Saucedo, the park's chief biologist, with whom I'd spent a long earlier day seeing some of the other wildlife, to take me out.  We didn't need to go far.  Several puma, including at least one female with two kits, had been frequenting the rocky hills and meadows near the park's headquarters and lodge, preying on guanaco (a llama-like wild herbivore that constitutes most of the cat's diet down there) and staying clear of conflict (so far) with tent campers and other visitors.  And so, beginning at dusk, along with two other folks—Sergio Urrejola, the head of wardens, and another visitor, Chantal Henderson—we slowly drove the gravel roads of the headquarters sector of the park.  Cristian and Chantal swept the hillsides and cliffs with strong beams, as the darkness got thick, while we all watched for the green eyeshine of a puma.  And sure enough, after less than an hour, there she was.  It was Chantal's light that found her, on a sweep high and leftward into some low bluffs.

    An adult female, said Cristian, judging from her size.  She was resting low on her belly, front paws forward, like the Great Sphinx of Giza, on a rock ledge about sixty yards above the road.  She turned her head toward us, eyes aglow, seeming unconcerned with the lights or our presence.  Then she turned away.  She might be resting, said Cristian, or laying in ambush for a guanaco.  Cristian and Chantal diverted their beams, and we continued to admire her, without blinding her, for fifteen minutes.  Then we quietly drove on, to leave her in peace—for her rest, or her hunt.  When we swung back past the same spot, almost an hour later, she was gone.

    That's it.  No big drama here.  Just an observation—important to me because I had waited so long.  She was there.  She was magnificent.  And then she was gone.  I didn't take a photo.  You'll have to trust me.  The image is indelible in my head.

 

David Quammen