It is often forgotten by visitors to the lowland forests of the Peruvian Amazon that as well as hoping to see the elusive jaguar, they should also be on the lookout for pumas.
The geographic range of the puma (Puma concolor) is the greatest of any terrestrial mammal in the western hemisphere (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002). The territory of the puma stretches from Canada, through the United States and Central and South America, all the way down to southern Chile and Argentinean Patagonia. The word “puma” entered the Spanish language from the Quechua spoken in Peru by the Incas. In English-speaking North America, pumas are better known as “cougars” or “mountain lions”.
Adult male pumas can weigh up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms), while females tend to be almost half the size of males. Puma fur may vary in color, from tawny brown to grayish red. The puma is the single most adaptable member of the world’s big cat family, capable of thriving in every major habitat found in the Americas, including the high open grasslands above 5000 meters (16,400 feet) in the Andes of southern Peru, down to the dense lowland tropical forests of the Amazon basin.
But while the puma is almost infinitely adaptable, it has not been immune to the dangers posed to the natural world by the human populations of the Americas. Within just two hundred years of European colonization, the puma was eliminated from the entire eastern half of North America (Nowell and Jackson, 1996). In the United States, only in the state of Florida does a very small and heavily endangered puma population continue to exist to this day, although in the Midwestern United States there have been a number of reports since the mid-1990s pointing to attempted re-colonization by pumas.
While there may be as many as 5000 pumas in Canada and perhaps 10,000 in the United States, the puma population in Central and South America is thought to be much greater.
Little is known about puma numbers in South America’s Amazon basin, but what seems certain is that habitats like that offered by the protected status of Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve constitute the perfect refuge for this most wide-ranging –and therefore arguably most iconic- of the mammalian species endemic to the Americas.
In our own Tambopata Private Conservation Area, our camera trap studies have shown that pumas have returned to the forests that we have been working to conserve since 1991. The presence of this apex predator serves as an indication of the excellent health of the lowland Amazon ecosystems we protect.