In recent years, conflicts in Patagonia between sheep ranchers and pumas have escalated. Puma have extremely large ranges, and as the amount of land devoted to sheep grazing has increased, the frequency of livestock attacks by pumas has likewise increased. This has unfortunately led to ranchers, or “leoneros”, who are hired by ranchers to hunt pumas, killing pumas that are encroaching on their land and threatening their livelihood.
The conflict between rancher and predator is not unique to Patagonia and has been going on for thousands of years. However, in the current age there are alternative solutions that can be proposed so that rather than one side suffering in order for the other to succeed, both parties can benefit. For instance, the organization Conservacion Patagonica is attempting to unite two existing reserves of around 450,000 acres combined with 200,000 acres of land they recently purchased in the Chacabuco Valley, in order to form a 650,000 acre Patagonia National Park.
Most of the 200,000 recently purchased acres were previously designated for sheep ranching, and in addition to puma conflicts with ranchers, the land also suffered from overgrazing. Thus, by uniting the Reserva Nacional Jeinimeini, the Estancia Valle Chacabuco, and the Reserva Nacional Tamango, it is hopeful that this biodiverse ecosystem consisting of semi-arid Patagonian steppe and temperate beech forests will become a sustainable, profitable, and ecologically rich area for both humans and animals. Furthermore, upgrading these areas from National Reserves to a National Park will ensure a higher degree of protection for all life in this swath of land.
Patagonia National Park will certainly benefit pumas by providing them additional land and greater protection from hunters. However, the park will also offer opportunities for ranchers, gauchos, and leoneros to work as park rangers, conservation workers, and guides among other occupations. Conservacion Patagonica is not simply scooping up the land, so to speak, and leaving native inhabitants with nothing. When they purchase land from ranchers, they offer them jobs like the aforementioned in the park recognizing that long-term success requires the uniting and fair treatment of all citizens. Thus, they are trying to foster this holistic approach through outreach, education, conservation, and ecotourism in order to conserve this extremely biodiverse area of land, while at the same time providing employment and boosting local economies.
Aside from puma and rancher conflict, unsustainable sheep grazing has led to desertification and also contributed to the decline of the native huemul deer. It is one of those situations where in the short term it might be difficult to accept a change when one has depended on sheep ranching for their livelihood their entire life. But in reality, it appears the land in Patagonia can only support that, at least on such a vast scale, for so much longer. Once the grasslands are no longer productive enough to make a living, there will be no more sheep grazing regardless of whether or not the park is there. In addition, the ecosystem as a whole will continue to decline, only exacerbating the issue. That is why acting now is vital and why Conservacion Patagonica is trying to work with ranchers to explain the need for imminent change. Change that goes beyond the desire of conservation for pumas or huemul or grasslands, but also factors in the human aspect.
Whether it be social, political, or ecological, there are most definitely a plethora of moving parts that must be considered and addressed when trying to form a national park the size of Patagonia National Park. From a conservation standpoint, the park sounds like a wonderful idea and one that I hope is fully implemented in the near future. Moreover, although it is sometimes difficult to look at the broad picture, I think that the financial injection that local citizens working directly for, or indirectly with, the park would see would far outweigh any negatives from the decline in ranching. The number of tourists that would flock to the site is something Conservacion Patagonica try to highlight as the ultimate payoff for those citizens worried about potentially losing their livelihood.
There are actually some in Patagonia who have already quite successfully switched from sheep husbandry to puma ecotourism like those at Laguna Amarga Ranch. This ranch is adjacent to, but not part of Torres Del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile, and it has become a refuge for pumas and therefore a hotspot for tourists who want to get a close-up view of these sublime creatures. As long as the pumas and the ecosystem they call home stay healthy, the tourists will continue to visit and the revenue generated will likewise continue to increase. Highly profitable, stable, and sustainable alternatives exist—it just takes a little creativity, collaboration, and a willingness to accept change that is likely to be best for everyone and everything in the long term. Hopefully we witness this success in the soon to be Patagonia National Park.
How critical do you think it is to maintain existing National Parks and to create new ones in order to protect a diverse but vulnerable ecosystem like that in Patagonia?