This season Australian freelance wildlife photographer Chantal Henderson joined us in Valle Chacabuco to photograph the elusive and endangered huemul deer and puma that live in Patagonia Park. Author of Wild Patagonia, Chantal has focused on capturing the wildlife and landscapes of Patagonia since her first visit to Chile in 2002. This week we interviewed Chantal about her first season working with Conservacion Patagonica’s wildlife team.
During Patagonia winter, our wildlife team focuses on both puma and huemul captures in order to increase our monitoring efforts. By monitoring these animals, the wildlife team can help track animal movement and home ranges, feeding habits, reproduction, and sources behind mortality. So far this season, the team has tagged three pumas and one huemul, with the goal of tagging four of each. This year, alongside the Conservacion Patagonica wildlife team, we are please to have the Chilean Wildlife Authority (SAG) as part of our efforts.
CP: As a native of Australia, how did you end up working all the way in Patagonia?
Chantal: I fell in love with Patagonia on my first six month photography trip to South America in 2002. On returning back to Australia after that trip, I entered some of my photographs in to the Australian Professional Photography Awards and won four landscape awards. This inspired me and I was soon planning my next trip, and all my energy was focused on getting back to Patagonia. Over the last 12 years I have been lured back almost 20 times, lugging large-format cameras, film, tripods and camping gear throughout to photograph the wilderness and beauty of Patagonia.
CP: You have an impressive background in wildlife photography. What drew you to the wildlife of Patagonia?
Chantal: One of the first things that drew me to Patagonia was witnessing and photographing orca off the coast of Argentina on a remote pebble beach called ‘Punta Norte’, Peninsula Valdes. Here, there is a small group of resident orca that have a unique hunting behavior whereby they intentionally strand on to the beach to capture baby sea lions from the shore. Through my enthusiasm and love for orca I became a co-founder of Punta Norte Orca research, where I helped with the research every March, taking fin and saddle patch ID’s of the animals.
Observing these amazing top predators for hundreds of hours was the impetus for my fascination with wildlife photography, and it was probably from this point that I was inspired to publish a photography book on landscapes and wildlife of Patagonia, called Wild Patagonia.
My library of photos grew substantially over the years. There was only photo missing—the puma. How was I going to photograph the elusive, and iconic puma?
CP: What drew you to want to participate in the puma and huemul projects?
Chantal: The Tompkins graciously invited me to see the ‘real’ Patagonia two years ago. I didn’t quite realize what Doug meant by the ‘real’ Patagonia,’ since I thought I had seen most of it in my travels. Then I came to Aysén and Valle Chacabuco for the first time in 2012 and was I amazed at the awesome rugged landscape. I realized just how much I had not seen and photographed.
CP: What kind of camera did you bring on the trip? Why this type in particular?
Chantal: I normally travel with my Panoramic Linhof Technorama camera, a fully manual panoramic camera with 6cmx17cm film size, which takes ‘larger than life’ panoramic images, and detail to match. For this trip I brought my Nikon D800E, full-frame DSLR and 200 mm 2.8 lens. It is fast and sharp for wildlife, in this case, puma in particular.
CP: What has been your favorite photograph so far?
Chantal: I would have to say that my favorite photo so far is of the puma kitten, though they are such impressive, beautiful animals that it’s hard to have a favorite.
CP: What have you done to prepare for your trip to Valle Chacabuco?
Chantal: After talking and emailing with Cristián Saucedo (Wildlife Manager for Conservacion Patagonica) for a couple of years about the prospect and logistics of joining the puma team to photograph puma, it was finally decided that I would come along in 2014 for a few weeks when the first snow fell. For me to join the puma team, there was a lot to be considered. There are many variables and risks that exist, and no single day is predictable.
I did all I could to prepare to go out with puma team in the beginning of the Patagonian winter. I took horse riding lessons for a few months prior to coming to give me the best possible chance of being confident enough on the horse to avoid getting in the way of the research. I did have a few additional concerns— the long cold days on the horse was something to consider, especially as I am from such a warm climate (the Sunshine Coast in Australia), how to photograph from the horse without fiddling with changing lenses, how to carry my camera equipment to keep it close and ready to shoot, and the risks of negotiating steep and icy terrain on horseback. Luckily, everything worked out perfectly in the end.
CP: Tracking wildlife requires great skill and knowledge. What was it like working with the CP wildlife team and SAG team members?
Chantal: I am currently half way through my time with the puma team and it is one of the most amazing experiences I have had. Not only in terms of seeing and photographing the puma from close up, but being part of the team and understanding first-hand the tedious and difficult task that it is to locate, tranquillize, gather data, and then tag the puma.
During my first week here, the puma team was also accompanied by SAG (Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero, Chile’s wildlife authority), who were there to supervise the capture of both huemul and puma. The landscape that we took the horses through is breathtakingly beautiful, and was therefore an unexpected and unique opportunity for landscape photos. It is difficult and wild terrain that demands an acquired knowledge to navigate, and would be almost impossible to get to by foot and without experience.
CP: The subject of pumas has become a very controversial topic in the region. How is the wildlife team working to mediate this controversy?
Chantal: There is no doubt that top predators can pose challenges concerning livestock, but education and new management practices offer alternatives. The Puma Project aims to demonstrate this by promoting the effectiveness of Great Pyrenees dogs in guarding livestock, to eliminate any desire to abolish puma for this reason.
From my perspective, the puma project is very important in monitoring puma and huemul populations in this area, to demonstrate the importance of their co-existence, and to ensure that their populations and habitats remain healthy, and hence the preservation of the ecosystem.
For some background, puma are a ’top-predator’ (as are wolves, lions, tigers, jaguars, sharks, bears, dingoes, orca, and more). Top predators are necessary for the maintenance of biodiversity to keep an ecosystem in balance— they are regulators of the food web. Persecuting and eliminating a top predator from an ecosystem has dire consequences: a ripple effect through rest of the food chain both ecologically and environmentally, and like lions, jaguars and whales, it is my opinion that we have no right to interfere with this.
From what I have read, Department of Agricultures’ wildlife services in many countries ignore, or are not informed of the positive, essential roles that top predators play in their habitat and hence there has been a long history of recklessly killing large numbers of predators. They are some of the most admired mammals and ironically some of the most imperiled.
CP: What was your goal for your trip this year?
Chantal: I feel extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity and my goal is to use my images in any way to help inspire appreciation and conservation of our beautiful wildlife and wilderness, because the way protect our ecosystems and the environment today, determines the future health of the planet.
I am so grateful to the puma team (Cristián Saucedo, Cristián Rivera, Arcilio and Delmiro) for taking me under their wing for the fun and memorable times. This has been the most inspiring and meaningful trip, and I through my book I hope to be able to contribute to puma project. I thought that this might be my last trip to Patagonia to get the puma shot in order to be able to publish my book, but never say never.