Ranchers push back as pumas fill Patagonian void


Argentina’s Chubut province is promoting the bounty-hunting of pumas. (Photo courtesy of Rewilding Argentina)

Sheep ranching has a long tradition in Argentina—especially in Patagonia, where poor soils, scant rain, relentless winds and low temperatures put a damper on other agricultural options.

Nevertheless, sheep operations have declined dramatically over the years due to factors ranging from falling global wool prices to more frequent drought and desertification, which has limited how many sheep can be grazed on a given area of land. The country’s sheep population fell from 48 million in 1960 to a low of 12.5 million in 2002, and stood at 13.3 million as of March of this year, according to government figures.

Ranchers complain that the vacuum created by this reduction of over 70% since 1960 is being filled by a predator that poses a growing threat to the remaining sheep—the puma, which they say is attacking their livestock with ever-increasing frequency.

“Where there is no activity there are more and more pumas,” says Julio Cittadini, who grazes 1,000 sheep on his 2,000-hectare (4,900-acre) ranch on the Punta Tombo Peninsula in the Patagonian province of Chubut. “Now they are very common.”

Complaints like Cittadini’s have become increasingly common in Chubut, which is Argentina’s foremost sheep ranching province with 3.3 million head as of this year—a 25% decline since 2005. In response, the Chubut provincial government in March decided to update and reapply a law that places bounties on pumas (Puma concolor) and Andean foxes (Pseudalopex culpaeus), which are also being blamed for attacking sheep. The law, which was enacted in 1995 but later fell out of use, was updated with new bounty payments of 5,000 pesos (US$50) per puma and 1,000 pesos (US$10) for each Andean fox.

In May, provincial authorities announced they had also bought 550 puma traps and distributed them free of charge to ranch owners and workers who were trained to use them. Though welcomed by ranchers, the provincial government’s actions have drawn severe criticism from the country’s principal environmental groups, which argue government-sponsored killing of native wildlife is unethical and that only a small percentage of pumas inhabit sheep-ranching areas. Green groups also assert that pumas are helping to control the region’s fast-expanding populations of wild guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and could become a tourist draw, as is the case across the Chilean border in Torres del Paine National Park.

Appeal for new approach
In a public appeal issued on Sept. 29, seven organizations called for the “urgent formation of a forum for dialogue to achieve genuinely sustainable [agricultural] production in harmony with wild fauna and flora.”

For ranchers such as Cittadini the alarm is unjustified. “Nobody wants to exterminate pumas,” he says. “It’s about controlling populations so there’s an equilibrium with agricultural production. For 140 years those raising sheep in Patagonia have killed pumas and they didn’t disappear. Their survival is assured.”

Ariel Aguirre, the provincial government’s livestock director, agrees. “Years ago, it was very rare to hear about pumas in conversations in the countryside,” Aguirre says. “But the rural area began losing livestock and people, so predators advanced and today pumas are hunted nearly throughout our province. Some [ranchers] don’t see a problem, but I believe that is an error because the puma has great reproductive capacity and [ranchers] should be prepared to confront it.”

The push to cull pumas, however, is not based on reliable estimates of the animal’s population, says biologist and puma expert Emiliano Donadío. “In recent years the idea has emerged that the quantity of pumas has increased,” says Donadío, scientific director of Rewilding Argentina, a nonprofit that has bought ranches in Argentina and Chile in order to restore native species. “We don’t know because no one has measured, though there does appear to be an increase in the area of territory they occupy. It’s possible they are recolonizing areas where they’d been eradicated: abandoned lands no longer controlled [by ranchers].”

Donadío’s organization has been accused by ranchers of enabling the return of predators. In 2020, Donadío captured 10 pumas in Patagonia, outfitted them with GPS collars and identified 327 of their kills—of which 76% were wild guanacos and only 3% were sheep. He acknowledges there is conflict in Patagonia between ranchers and pumas but questions the impulse to resort to hunts. “Other ways need to be found, such as the use of guardian dogs,” he says. (See "Herders using dogs to keep pumas at bay" —EcoAméricas, May 2021.)

Nuanced view
Ricardo Irianni, an agricultural engineer who heads the Chubut Valley Rural Society, an association of 200 agricultural producers in the north of the province, says guardian dogs would likely be ineffective in Patagonia. That, he says, is because sheep there are so widely dispersed—and thus exposed to attack—as they graze over enormous expanses of land. Meanwhile, ever-lower profit margins have forced ranchers to trim payrolls, leaving fewer ranch hands to monitor flocks.

But Irianni says bounty-hunting is “anachronistic” and needs to be reconsidered. He points out much of Argentina’s wool is sold in foreign markets where consumers will scrutinize the impacts of its production. Says Irianni: “A citizen of Norway or the United States surely will want to know that what they purchase was produced in a manner that is friendly to the environment and biological diversity.”

The most prominent foe of Chubut’s pro-hunting policy is Vida Silvestre Argentina, or Wildlife Argentina, which represents the international group WWF in the country. The group called for repeal of the hunting law in June, questioning the use of public funds for bounties. But provincial authorities responded that under the regimen approved in March, money for the rewards will be raised by withholding 0.4% of the revenue from a tax on wool exports, meaning the bounty money will effectively come from ranchers themselves.

Such an arrangement, however, might only increase the risks to wool exports, argues Vida Silvestre Director Manuel Jaramillo. “It will be very difficult to maintain foreign markets for Argentine wool if the buyers find out that when they pay, they are supporting the killing in Argentina of native animals,” he says. “We all recognize that there is a problem, but it is time to suspend the payments that stimulate hunting and discuss a different solution.”

- Daniel Gutman

In the index: A puma in Patagonia, where the cats have been occupying more territory as sheep ranching has dwindled. (Photo by Emiliano Donadío)

Julio Cittadini
Sheep rancher
Punta Tombo, Chubut, Argentina
Tel: +(54 929) 4494-2090
Email: cittadinijc@gmail.com
Emiliano Donadío
Scientific Director
Rewilding Argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 4807-3976
Email: edonadio@rewildingargentina.org
Ricardo Irianni
Chubut Valley Rural Society
Trelew, Chubut, Argentina
Tel: +(54 28) 0442-0921 
Email: irianni@gmail.com
Manuel Jaramillo
General Director
Vida Silvestre Argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 4331-3631
Email: manuel.jaramillo@vidasilvestre.org.ar