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Puma problem

Student returns to his native Chile to protect predator and prey

December 10, 2013

The last several years in Tarapacá, Chile, have been tough for livestock owners and their herds. Danger lurks in the desert. 

Fatal puma attacks on farmers’ llamas and alpacas are increasing. And the challenge is not unique to Tarapacá, an arid Andean region in northern Chile. Conflicts between livestock and pumas have spread across the entire country. 

Omar Ohrens, a graduate student in the Nelson Institute Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development program, is studying how and why the big cats prey on livestock. His work is supported by a Chilean government scholarship from the country’s National Commission for Scientific and technological Research and an 18-month research grant from the Agriculture and livestock Service, a Chilean governmental agency in Tarapacá.  

Fatal puma attacks on farmers’ llamas and alpacas are increasing in Chile
Graduate student Omar Ohrens’ mission in Tarapacá
is to develop a puma conservation plan that also factors
in intervention strategies to reduce livestock predation. 

A native of Chile, Ohrens’ mission in Tarapacá is to develop a puma conservation plan that also factors in intervention strategies to reduce livestock predation. He and his graduate advisor Adrian Treves, an associate professor of environmental studies who specializes in issues related to human-carnivore coexistence, have teamed up with Pontifica Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago to approach the problem from two sides.  

First, the team collects scientific information about the pumas, such as the size of the population and their ecological interactions. Though this carnivore is the top predator in Chile, very little is known about the pumas in Tarapacá. Second, the researchers work with Aymara communities, local indigenous people of the region, to gain inside knowledge about the conflict.

“We try to learn what is going on directly from the people to understand the demographics of the conflict,” Ohrens says. “What are the problems they are having? Do they see any patterns? Is the conflict bigger now than it was five years ago?”

Ohrens has noticed a shift in Tarapacá’s human population since he first arrived for this research in 2011. Opportunities in larger neighboring cities have steadily drawn younger people away from Tarapacá, he says, with many never returning. Most who remain have lived in the community their whole lives, indigenous people deriving their living off the land.  

“The people actually live from their livestock – that’s their income and their source of protein. So the main problem in the puma-livestock conflict is that their livestock are dying,” Ohrens says.  

According to Ohrens, community members are split on how to best control the conflict. Agricultural researchers, livestock owners and other stakeholders all have varying perspectives – an added challenge in advancing a solution. 

Ohrens has developed a questionnaire to gather local opinions. So far, suggestions include installing fences on individual properties, creating a compensation program for lost livestock and hunting the pumas. 

Ohrens is also developing a risk map to help focus resources in locations where puma and livestock conflicts are most likely to happen. The map is based on a number of variables such as the presence of pumas, past predation events, prey behavior and landscape type. 

At the conclusion of his research, Ohrens will propose to the Agriculture and Livestock Service a long-term conservation and intervention solution that he feels also benefits the greatest number of people. 

“This is a large country with different ecosystems and different cultures. Strategies need to fit how things already work and those who already live here,” Ohrens says. “The strategy I’m developing could be a model for other regions.” 

Ohrens’ hands-on approach in the affected communities provides valuable context for crafting possible solutions. Previous government solutions have lacked an on-the-ground perspective, he says, mainly because distance and resources are a challenge. Three hours separates Tarapacá and the closest government agency, creating a divide between residents and officials. 

“Governmental agencies propose many great solutions, but often not what is needed,” Ohrens says. “Many times these solutions don’t work because they are not based on what is actually happening locally. This is why it’s so important to talk to the people as well as the government agencies.” 

Ohrens believes the most permanent solution to sustaining both livestock populations and pumas lies in targeting the approach to specific regions and involving many local players. 

“Many of the agencies in Tarapacá are overlapping on issues, so they have many things in common. We need to build connections between them,” Ohrens says. “There are some things you can’t separate, so the idea is to stay interdisciplinary in our approach by integrating ecological and social dimensions.” 

Slide show photos and captions by Omar Ohrens.