A unique visitor has been spotted this week in the insular community of Montecito, California — home to the ultra-wealthy and famous, including Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan.
The visitor — a mountain lion — was seen prowling the streets on the east end of town, its eyes aglow in the night light of the suburban enclave.
Mountain lions are common in this area, as Montecito sits right along the edge of Los Padres National Forest, which is home to a large community of the big cats. And seeing a mountain lion so close to the forest isn’t particularly surprising, John Benson, an ecologist at the University of Nebraska tells The Independent.
But it’s possible that as intense drought continues to hit the state, mountain lion prey like deer could roam further in search of water — and the cats may follow.
“If drought is going to serve to bring deer and lions closer to humans, I think there’s certainly the potential that there could be more interactions, more potential for conflict,” Dr Benson says.
Mountain lions — also known as cougars, panthers, pumas or catamounts — count themselves among the native residents of southern California.
Among other places, the cats can be found in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara and Ventura, and the Santa Monica mountains, which stretch along the coast near Malibu.
One mountain lion, named P22, even lives in Griffith Park, a wild corner of the Hollywood Hills in urban Los Angeles. That’s why this recent sighting in Montecito — just east of Santa Barbara — isn’t particularly surprising.
“As far as a mountain lion in Montecito, there’s nothing at all unusual about that,” Tim Daly, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, tells The Independent.
The community sits right up against the mountains, and while it might be startling to film a lion, it’s to be expected, he adds.
A representative for the duke and duchess did not offer comment on the recent cat sighting to The Independent.
While the lions usually stay tucked away in more secluded areas, drought may be pushing them outside their comfort zone in an effort to find food.
Dr Benson says that one study he worked on in the Santa Monica mountains showed that while most mountain lion attacks on deer happened outside of developed areas, they were happening closer than you might expect.
One possible explanation for that is that the deer might be being drawn into the water sources in these developed areas, moving them closer to humans, he adds. Whether drought is behind the specific recent sighting in Montecito is hard to say, however.
California, like much of the western US, remains in a state of intense drought — a continuation of the decades-long and climate crisis-fuelled “megadrought” that has crippled the region.
Over 97 per cent of the state is experiencing “severe drought”, according to the US government’s drought monitor. One study this year found that the past couple of decades have been the driest in the US southwest in at least 1,200 years.
Droughts will likely get both more frequent and more intense as the climate crisis heats the planet and makes many areas drier, a UN panel on climate science has said.
There have been a few good mountain lion sightings in California in recent years. For example, one cub wandered into a school in the Bay Area earlier this summer, and NBC Bay Area reported last year that sightings were up in the region.
Mr Daly says there have been some incidents with mountain lions in the past, with pets or even children and notes that people can take precautions by keeping small children close by while out on a hike. He also suggests keeping their pets inside at night — as well as cleaning up and securing any food and garbage outside to discourage wildlife visits.
Still, mountain lion attacks on humans remain a rare occurrence. Since 1986, California has only documented 21 mountain lion attacks on people and only three have been fatal. There could also be another reason for people spotting more mountain lions — more cameras.
“With the explosion of cameras on homes and businesses, we’re seeing a lot more of that activity only because we’re probably capturing a lot more of that activity on camera,” Mr Daly says.
Mountain lions live across the Americas, from southern Argentina to western Canada. Once, they also lived across eastern North America, though all but a small population of them in southern Florida have been killed off.
Some conservationists are working to make sure they don’t disappear from any more areas, including southern California.
In addition to drought, big cats in the Los Angeles area face the threat of habitat fragmentation as neighbourhoods, homes and freeways carve up the landscape — making it hard for the notoriously wide-ranging animals to traverse the hills and valleys.
Ecologists have been concerned about the small population in the Santa Monica mountains in particular, which is isolated from the rest of the state by the ocean and developments in the valleys north of downtown Los Angeles.
With such isolation from other cats, the Santa Monica cats face the threat of inbreeding, which could lead to genetic issues down the line. Some mountain lions have also died crossing the highway.
In response, officials are now building a massive wildlife crossing, complete with plants and natural landscaping, over Highway 101 just outside of Los Angeles. It will allow the big cats to travel from the hills and out into the wider Los Padres forest.