The puma whisperer: The wildlife photography of Jorge Cazenave

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 First light over the Paine Massif. Photo: Jorge CazenaveFirst light over the Paine Massif. Photo: Jorge Cazenave

Argentine photographer Jorge Cazenave has been leading the pack as one of Patagonia's foremost wildlife photographers for more than three decades and is particularly well-known for his striking photographs of elusive, charismatic animals such as the Patagonian puma. His incredible image of a puma prowling toward his camera one afternoon in Torres del Paine was the cover of Patagon Journal's 17th issue; other photographs of his were also featured in the magazine's lead story about puma tracking.
In addition, Cazenave has also worked with the BBC and Televisa and is a researcher with Punta Norte Orca Research in Peninsula Valdes, Argentina, where he has spent countless hours waiting to capture images of the local orcas' unique hunting techniques. He also leads photography expeditions for Wild South Photography. We sat down with Jorge, who is one of the judges for Patagon Journal's 4th Patagonia Photo Contest, to find out more about his craft and what drives his passion for photographing Patagonia's captivating and hard-to-find wildlife.
You took the cover image of the cougar in the latest edition of Patagon Journal. Can you tell us the story of how you got that picture?
Last winter, while I was walking along the avifauna trail in Torres del Paine National Park, between Portería Sarmiento and the detour route to the Rock Paintings, I found this young male sitting on a stone...or rather he found me. Slowly, he came down from the stone and started walked directly toward me. When I saw him coming, I knelt down and took a series of photographs, because even though it was around noon, the sun was lighting up the landscape and the puma as if it were a sunset. Immediately I got up so he wouldn’t confuse or interpret my body language with any aggressive or evasion attitudes or intentions. I made eye contact, and together with a friend who was with me, we stood up slowly while crossing the path. Then the puma went under the fence that separates the park from the neighboring ranch, and we lost sight of it as it moved off into the landscape. Without a doubt a very nice encounter which would be difficult to repeat again since it has been more than a year since that particular individual bas been seen in the area.
The Sister and Mocha, the most famous pumas in the world. Photo: Jorge CazenaveThe Sister and Mocha, the most famous pumas in the world. Photo: Jorge Cazenave
When did you first get into photography? What drew you to it?
A long time ago, when I was a child, I lived in the United States for a few years. There were squirrels in the garden of the house we lived in and my father bought a camera to photograph them. With that camera, I made my first tools of the trade. I was always passionate about fauna, and still am.
You have done a lot of photography work in Torres del Paine National Park. What is your opinion on how increasing tourism is affecting the park and its inhabitants?
I started traveling to Torres del Paine back when it was practically closed during winter. Only a few of us visited then and there were no open accommodations at the time. This has changed a lot, especially in recent years. Being one of the most beautiful places in the world, it makes a lot of sense that it is visited by tourists from all over. Obviously, this brings with it some logistical and planning challenges, like waste management, traffic accidents, and the like. And all this forces the park authorities to make great efforts toward controling and balancing everything. Being a large park, with few roads, the pressure from tourism is very strongly felt, as well as along the most popular trails. The park inhabitants, the flora and fauna, have suffered, of course. The recent fires have left a mark that possibly will be erased with time, but none of us will be here to see that total restoration. As for the fauna, it has great capacity for adaptation to our presence, and as long as it is not disturbed it will continue to survive, allowing us to be witnesses. Equally, the presence of park rangers, expert guides - and providing visitor information - is fundamental so that the presence of tourists does not alter the conditions of this magnificent natural scenery.
A hidden puma lurking over guanacos. Photo: Jorge Cazenave  A hidden puma lurking over guanacos. Photo: Jorge Cazenave

How can wildlife photography trips be caried out in harmony with conservation and not disturb the daily life and environment of the animals that you are photographing?
The defining characteristic of the wildlife photographer is his love and passion for animals. No one is out to disturb them, at least not on purpose. Mass tourism is much riskier for wildlife. Wildlife photographers collaborate, to a large extent, in the protection of animals, since through their work they can reach and impact people who for various reasons can not reach the areas where they live. What is known is protected, and photographs and documentaries bring us closer to the lives of animals. Of course there is a "field ethic" with fairly clear rules, such as how to approach animals, when to leave the animals "in peace", etc. Undoubtedly, regulating the encounters with the animals is key. A good way to do this is to assemble small groups of photographers or enthusiasts, who pay a special fee to access areas outside the traditional trails, always accompanied by park rangers, after environmental impact studies have been carried out. In this way, the activity is not only controlled, but also information is obtained about the behavior of the animals beyond the main trails and in their natural environment.
What are the challenges of photographing wildlife?
The biggest challenge is having patience. Many times, one looks for an animal that is elusive for days, sometimes weeks, in order to have the reward of a few minutes. In general, the more hours you invest in the search, the more possibilities there are to photograph what you want. This can only be replaced by luck. Other challenges are, in general, the climate (heat, cold, wind and the main enemy, rain), the weight of the equipment, and also the "patience" of the different species to our presence in their territory.
Do you have a particular place or animal species that is your favorite to photograph?
The puma is definitely one of my favorites, and Torres del Paine National Park is one of the two places in the world which everytime I return, it captivates me in a way that makes it difficult for me to leave. Another favorite animal is the orca, and especially its intentional stranding hunting technique, which you can observe in Peninsula Valdes. Located on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, Peninsula Valdes is another favorite; I travel there frequently to try to observe this unique phenomenon. This is where patience is essential, since I have to spend many hours just sitting, waiting for them to appear. Those hours sometimes turn into days and weeks, but it is evident that the reward is worth it because I've been going to the peninsula for almost 20 years.
Orcas hunting at Punta Norte in Peninsula Valdes, Argentina. Photo: Jorge CazenaveOrcas hunting at Punta Norte in Peninsula Valdes, Argentina. Photo: Jorge Cazenave

Why are Chile, and Patagonia in particular, such great places to photograph landscapes and wildlife?
Throughout all of Chile, there are innumerable incredible places, both to admire the landscapes and to observe the fauna. With such huge contrasts between places like the Valdivian forest and the Atacama desert, it is undoubtedly a top destination for nature lovers. The Chilean coast, in its entirety, is a highway of marine mammals, great for spotting; other popular marine sighting destinations in other parts of the world are not better than what you can see on the Chilean coast. Patagonia, with its relatively small human presence and multitude of places that are difficult to access, makes you feel like you are one of the lucky few that have traveled all the way there. That feeling is not normal in other parts of the world. That's why I choose to come back again and again.
Can you tell me more about your research work with orcas at Península Valdés and why you enjoy it?
We are a non-governmental organization dedicated to researching the population of orcas that practice hunting by intentionally stranding rhemselves on the beaches of Punta Norte in Peninsula Valdés. We do it through observation and photographing the different individuals and their family groups. This hunting technique is performed by less than 20 killer whales worldwide. They hunt puppies of sea lions and elephant seals. I really enjoy this activity because I spend hours watching the sea, waiting to see the blow spouts of the orcas, waiting through the heat, the cold, and the wind to have the reward of seeing these incredible marine mammals that practically come out of the water to capture their food.
A family of jaguars by Rio Dois Irmaos in the Pantanal, Mato Gross, Brazil. Photo: Jorge CazenaveA family of jaguars by Rio Dois Irmaos in the Pantanal, Mato Gross, Brazil. Photo: Jorge Cazenave
Are there other places or species in Argentine Patagonia that you enjoy photographing?
In general, the maritime coast of Patagonia has many species that I enjoy photographing, especially the dusky and austral dolphins for their acrobatic jumps. There are also birds that I like very much, such as the short-tailed ducks and moorish eagles.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?
Go take pictures. Nothing is better than gaining experience and more opportunities to learn. Nowadays, digital cameras allow us to make mistakes at zero cost. Another thing I would recommend is that, sometimes, it is better instead to put down your camera and contemplate the scene before you with your own eyes, seeing the wonders that nature offers us.
Do you have a new project that you are working on at the moment you would like to share with us?
I always have new projects. There are many places to explore, but so little time! I had the good fortune last year to travel by boat from Puerto Montt to Laguna San Rafael and I was totally surprised by the variety of wildlife we saw. We were lucky to see orcas several times, and without a doubt I would like to know more about their behavior. Also, I'm looking for new places to see both pumas and jaguars, because the already "known" places for sightings, like Torres del Paine, are starting to get too saturated.