Taylor Phillips ’98 to Track Pumas in Patagonia

Thursday, September 12, 2019
Pumas in Patagonia

In March 2020, Taylor Phillips ’98 is headed to Patagonia to search for pumas, and he’s bringing his camera and a group of up to 12 guests along with him.

“Mountain lions are pretty elusive animals, so to see them uninhibited is pretty darn special,” he says.

This is the first international trip Phillips is offering through his company, Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, and over the course of 10 days, trip participants will tour Torres del Paine National Park, track pumas on foot on a private estancia adjacent to the national park, study Andean condors, and spend time aboard the M/V Forrest in the Straits of Magellan, viewing glaciers and marine wildlife like humpback whales, skua, and penguins.

“I’m not aware that there’s ever been a trip that brings these four amazing experiences together,” says Phillips, who moved to Jackson Hole in 2002 for the opportunities to watch wildlife and in 2008 founded Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures. “Any one of these four experiences is worth making the trip to this remote part of the world. The four together are a little crazy.” 

Patagonia is a sparsely populated region at the base of South America, spanning portions of Chile and Argentina. The landscape includes granite spires, vast mountainous vistas, glacial flows, oceanic inlets and waterways, and a unique blend of native wildlife.

To make the trip happen, Phillips has partnered with Dr. Mark Elbroch, a Washington-based wildlife biologist and international authority on pumas, and the New York City-based nonprofit Panthera. “When Dr. Elbroch approached me to partner with him on a puma trip near Torres del Paine, around which scientists think there is a higher concentration of pumas than anywhere else in the world, I didn’t have to think twice,” he says. “The opportunity for me to learn about a new area and to introduce clients to its animals in such an intimate way was a no-brainer. Also, we’re helping protect the area’s pumas.”

Inside Torres del Paine, it is illegal to hunt pumas, but scientists estimate that more than twice as many cats live in the lands surrounding the park as live in the park. Ranchers graze flocks of sheep on much of the land around the park; these ranchers estimate they annually kill about 100 of the cats for preying on their flocks. “But if we’re bringing paying guests to see pumas living in the wild, and they’re staying at the local estancias and employing local guides, there’s incentive to keep them alive,” Phillips says. “By promoting puma ecotourism, we’re helping protect these cats.”

Taylor Phillips ’98

How did Phillips find his way into this line of work? He says he owes his interest in the outdoors and his current livelihood to Mercersburg, the TREK program, and faculty member Jim Malone. “I can thank Big Jim Malone for that one,” he says. “I can’t tell you what an incredible adviser and teacher and inspiration he was to me. There’s not a doubt in my mind that I would be running a different course if our paths hadn’t crossed. Introducing me to the outdoor world was invaluable, and I am completely fulfilled now.”

During Phillips’ time at Mercersburg, Malone was one of the faculty leaders for TREK, the precursor to Mercersburg Outdoor Education (MOE). Through TREK, Phillips had the opportunity to experience whitewater canoeing, climbing, hiking, and backpacking. While TREK lasted only a few months out of the school year, MOE now offers programs during each term of the academic year, and Phillips has previously partnered with MOE to give tours to students during their trips to the Yellowstone area. “It has been so fun to connect with current students in that fashion,” Phillips says.

As Phillips looks toward the future, he hopes this trip to Patagonia is just the first of more international trips offered through his company. The Falkland Islands are on his radar for a future excursion, as well as a possible trip to the Arctic to observe the caribou. “I’m looking for unique wildlife opportunities,” Phillips says. “I’m looking to create programs that are not offered anywhere else.”

To learn more about Phillips’ work and the upcoming trip to Patagonia, visit Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures. To read more about Phillips and his connection to Mercersburg, take a look at pages 25-26 of this issue from the Mercersburg Academy magazine archives.