Patagonia’s Elusive Species Like You’ve Never Seen Them

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

A lone male cougar walked through the tall grass of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, and he appeared to be heading straight for a film crew.

The team, led by Chilean producer and director René Araneda, had obtained a special permit to film cougars off the main park trail. The team was expecting another puma, affectionately nicknamed Supermom, when an unknown man arrived.

Pumas don’t see humans as prey or even a threat – but it was crucial that the crew stayed still and didn’t move, no matter how close the curious puma approached.

The cougar observed the small group of film crew and moved on to the real reason he had arrived: to hunt down the guanacos, a South American relative of the llama.

The tense moment has passed, but for Araneda and his crew, it was just another day of dealing with unpredictable wildlife in Chile. Once again, their knowledge and expertise protected them and the animals they documented for the CNN original series “Patagonia: Life on the Edge of the World.”

“You have a script, you have an idea, you have plans that you want to do, but at the end of the day when you’re working with wildlife, there’s a lot of improvisation on the spot,” Araneda told CNN. “It depends on what the wildlife allows you to do.”

Close Encounters

Araneda remembers using a camcorder at the age of 8 to capture images of lizards and snakes, and recruiting his grandfather as a presenter. As well as being a filmmaker, Araneda became a professional safari field guide while living in South Africa. This experience taught him to be respectful of animals, to read their natural behavior and to do things safely.

Araneda has worked on a number of documentaries over the past 10 years about Patagonian cougars. Cats are protected in Torres del Paine, and even farmers who once hunted them as predators of livestock now focus on protecting them. The male puma encountered by the Araneda team is likely moving around the park as new biological corridors have opened up in recent years, he said.

The park is a place where conservation biologists can study cougars up close, observing their behaviors from 20 meters (65 feet) away in a way that could only be observed in camera traps in the United States.

“They let you see their secret life,” Araneda said.

But ultimately, the park is cougar territory – a home for wild creatures where humans are the visitors. Araneda hopes people respect wild places and keep their distance, rather than charging with selfie sticks.

All of the crews that worked on CNN’s “Patagonia” docuseries obtained specific permissions from local parks departments and organizations such as Chile’s National Forest Society, or CONAF, to film in certain locations as well as specific animals.

Being considerate of the animals and their space, as well as bringing in scientists and experts, allowed the crews to capture some incredible moments.

Cinematographer Mauricio Handler dove underwater to film sea otters known as chungungos in Bahía Mansa, a quiet fishing village on Chile’s west coast. Otters were once on the verge of extinction, but they have rebounded in recent years.

What started out as a tough and chilling shoot turned into a “magical moment” for Handler as he captured footage of the otters playing.

real-time science

Araneda recalls the first time he met biologist Isaí Madriz in 2019. Araneda was researching filming locations in South America and the two met by chance “in the middle of nowhere”.

Madriz had been conducting field research for weeks when he boarded the boat Araneda was on. They talked for hours, and at the end of their conversation, Araneda knew he wanted to work with Madriz on future projects.

“Those are the kind of people we wanted on the show,” Araneda said. “Passionate people who do things no one else does and really make a difference.”

Madriz has a reputation as “the bug detective”, and he’s known for finding new and rare insect species. Along with sharing details about the glacier sandfly known as the Patagonian ice dragon, Madriz has also camped in the treetops of Chile’s Valdivian Forest to capture primitive crane flies.

“The biggest challenge is to put in everyone’s mind that a little ice dragon is the same or more important than a cougar or a whale,” Araneda said. “It has the same value.”

An elusive species on camera

Scientists like Madriz and marine biologist Carla Christie shared valuable expertise and knowledge with the crews while working on the series.

Christie studies the Chilean dolphin, one of the smallest dolphins in the world which reaches a maximum of 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) in length. These small dolphins, which sport rounded fins and snouts, are endemic to the Chilean coast, but they live in small groups because they are very specific about their habitat, Christie said. Scientists estimate that there are only a few thousand of these sea creatures.

And unlike other dolphins, Chilean dolphins are shy creatures that tend to stay away from boats and people.

The near-threatened species is at risk of becoming entangled in fishing nets, encroaching on habitat and being polluted by noise. Christie, director of resources and public relations for Fundación Oceanósfera in Chile, wants to raise awareness about the species because most people don’t even know it exists.

During filming, Christie was on a boat with director Kate Laurie.

“We already knew going into the story that it would probably be extremely difficult to find them,” Laurie said. “They are very elusive.”

The dolphins appeared on the first day of filming as the boat sailed towards the sheltered archipelago of Guaitecas. The crew was ready with drones and underwater cameras to capture a species rarely seen on film.

Christie was able to see a dolphin and her calf underwater, as well as mating behaviors using the drone overhead.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” said Christie. “I had the unique and important opportunity to tell the world about this unknown little dolphin from the end of the world.”

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