National Geographic : 2013 Dec
68 national geographic • december 2013 distance. At least ten months earlier a young male cougar from the Santa Monica Mountains set out, following that trickle of green through the vast human hive. After somehow crossing two of the world’s busiest roads, including the ten-lane Hollywood Freeway, he settled in at Griffith Park, the huddle of hills rising just be- hind us, recognizable worldwide by the giant HOLLYWOOD sign partway up. Homing in on signals from a radio collar on the animal, Sikich leads the way along the famous slope. He pinpoints the cat’s current location; then we hike on to check sites where it lingered to feed on a kill. We discover two mule deer carcasses dragged into tangles of scrub oak and manzanita. Remains of a third lie in a ra- vine next to the manicured lawns of a cemetery where deer often graze. We pass dog walkers, bird-watchers, hikers, joggers, bicyclists, horse- back riders, and scores of graveside mourners. If any know they’re sharing this landscape with an invisible but potentially deadly predator, they show no sign of concern. “ There’s only room in our Santa Monica Mountains for ten to fifteen cougars,” Sikich says. “The average territory of an adult male there is around 200 square miles. With older, stronger males defending all the available space, this young one had to leave to claim a home of its own. Griffith Park takes in less than seven square miles, but our guy seems to be finding what he needs to survive here.” Think of it: A large carnivore that must kill to eat is meeting its nutritional needs in the heart of greater L.A., all the while avoiding attention better than a camera-shy celebrity. How does he do it? By moving with a whisper-soft tread mostly in the twilight and at night, sticking close to thick cover, zealously guarding his privacy in a metropolis renowned as the gateway to fame. With a range that extends from southern Argentina and Chile to the edge of Canada’s Yukon, Puma concolor, the cougar—aka puma, panther, painter, and brown tiger—is the most widespread large, land-dwelling mammal in the Western Hemisphere, yet among the least seen. In North America it also goes by the names catamount, mountain screamer, and mountain lion, though the species is more closely related to cheetahs and smaller felines than to African lions or other big cats, and it’s at home in steamy tropi- cal lowlands as well as among the peaks. North I t’s a warm winter day in southern California, and busloads of tourists are pulling into an overlook above Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. As their guides point out movie studios and the mansions of stars, Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, directs my gaze toward a thin ribbon of woods in the By Douglas Chadwick Photographs by Steve Winter Douglas Chadwick has reported on wildlife around the world. Steve Winter is media director for Panthera, a big cat conservation organization.