The turn off from the main road towards the Parque Patagonia is a spectacular introduction to this vast, remote and utterly captivating project. At the confluence of the Baker and Chacabuco Rivers, once earmarked for a large dam project, the azure waters hint at the continued struggle this region grapples with in the face of increasing industrialised development.
The 170,500-acre Estancia Chacabuco was once a regionally important sheep ranch that traces its history back to the initial founding by British explorer Lucas Bridges. Over time, overgrazing led to a landscape barren of the native flora and fauna, most notably the puma (puma concolor), lesser rhea (rhea pennata pennata), culpeo fox (Lycalopex culpaeus) and huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus).
This landscape, a mixture of traditional Patagonian steppe grassland and Southern Beech forest, was purchased by Doug and Kris Tompkins over a number of years, adding to their already sizeable portfolio of large-scale national park and rewilding projects across the Southern Cone. Forming part of the Conservacion Patagonia foundation, the park is now spearheading a number of innovative measures designed to bring back this varied panorama of animal and plant life.
The importance of the Parque Patagonia lies, however, in its proximity to other wild spaces. When finally handed over to the Chilean government, the reserve will link the Jeinimeini and Tamango National Parks in an area of 650,000 acres, creating corridors expansive enough to allow populations to become self sufficient. It is this vision that sustains the efforts of its partners, of an ecosystem large and resilient enough to restore and revitalise these lands with roaming guanaco, dense Lenga forests and an established Huemul population.
In an area where sheep farming is an inherent part of the cultural makeup of the people, the project initially came up against a backdrop of misunderstanding and mistrust. Apex predators, so often the bane of the herders lives, had been captured and hunted almost to extinction in a fight that degraded the landscape and epitomised the use of inefficient techniques on a fragile landscape.
The rural population, based in the city of Coyhaique and the small village of Cochrane, were unsure of how the project would impact both their traditional culture and day-to-day lives. Yet the relentless vigour of both Kris and Doug, allied with the visible effects, both monetary and culturally, of increased tourism, are slowly but surely changing patterns of behaviour. Former ranch hands are now park rangers, making use of the deep ecological knowledge garnered from years of observation and tracking.
The project depends on a small group of dedicated professionals who live and work in the park. Paula Herrera is the volunteer coordinator and park veterinarian and her role is to oversee both the wellbeing of the existing livestock that the park is slowly selling off, and the innovative programme of ‘sheepdog protectors’. This programme, the result of a number of studies into puma-livestock interaction, uses a team of Great Pyrenees dogs raised specifically to protect the remaining livestock. The success of the programme, Paula explains, is key to how we can use non-traditional techniques to lessen the impact of agriculture in a way that is fruitful to both farmer and ecosystem.
Her work alongside husband Cristian Saucedo has been key in providing the data to match the park’s objectives. A pioneering puma-monitoring scheme, set up in 2008, seeks to better plot the animals’ movement, behaviour and actions using GPS collars. The results also allow the team to adapt existing strategies and to project population in a considered way.
The Huemul Deer Recovery programme is also of critical importance. The local population of this emblematic animal, which features on the national shield, is highly endangered. A combination of damaging factors, including habitat loss, overhunting and predation by domestic dogs, mean that only around 140 individuals remain in the Chacabuco Valley/Tamango reserves. The work, of creation and protection of Southern Beech habitat, is aided by both park rangers and an international cohort of volunteers.
When asked what makes her particularly proud of this work, Paula responds unequivocally: “giving the opportunity to native flora and fauna and seeing traditional trophic cascades reestablished – guanaco, puma, condor”. It has, she admits, been a long process and there have been many instances where the feasibility and scale of the work have been tested.
But her resolve is fuelled by a desire to learn. “I’ve found that the biggest lesson is to value the people who work here. They have experience on the ground, they need little to live and they strive to integrate conservation with local people and customs. I learn from them and they learn from me,” she says.
The work continues in this remote corner of Chile. Results, especially in grassland recuperation, fuel great enthusiasm. Likewise, documentation of the advances in films such as 180 Degrees South and Mile for Mile, along with the undeniable star quality of the Tompkins themselves.
Yet everyone behind Parque Patagonia is keen to stress where the real value of this endeavour lies. “It’s about becoming a National Park, about giving this land back to the people and the animals it belongs to,” Paula says. The allocation of space to unbridled natural wilderness, controversial even in a country as large as Chile, is difficult, and the involvement of local and regional stakeholders takes time, discussion and passion.
Yet the coupling of tangible results with the wide-eyed wonder as a local school child watches a guanaco roam a patch previously blocked by fencing invites us to consider our own route map to a wilder life.
About the author
Adam Fry is deputy director of Change for Climate Change, a registered charity that raises funds to promote projects that educate the public on issues of environmental sustainability and conservation. He has worked extensively in Latin America in community-based engagement, particularly with youth-led movements, and specialises in effective implementation of long-term education.