The wind blows so hard as to seem deafening on the plateau that rises just south of the border-straddling, 714-square-mile (1,850-sq-km) water body known in Argentina as Lake Buenos Aires and in Chile as Lake General Carrera. The plateau, located in the southern Argentine province of Santa Cruz and named after the lake, is one of the least hospitable places in Patagonia. Here, 500 to 1,200 meters (1,600 to 3,900 feet) above sea level, there are no trees, rain is rare, cold temperatures prevail and the unrelenting winds sometimes approach hurricane speed. The best way for visitors to get around on the roadless terrain is by horse, since vehicles rarely can exceed a human’s walking pace on the rugged, volcanic rock-studded surface. Such is the isolation that the landscape appears to belong to the guanacos (Lama guanicoe) that roam widely and free, and to the birds that summer near the numerous—and in many cases nameless—lakes also found atop the plateau.
Until recently, the only regular human visitors have been a small number of gauchos who appear every summer to graze their sheep. But since 2010 another demographic has been represented—dozens of young conservationists, mostly college students from Argentina, Europe and North America, who camp here in the summer in 15-day shifts as part of a surprisingly influential conservation project.
The young people come to keep exotic species away from the lakeside breeding habitats of the endangered hooded grebe (Podiceps gallardoi), a diving bird with a dark-gray and white body, a black head, a white forehead and reddish peaked forecrown. The self-styled “guardians of the colonies” are doing so as part of an intensive initiative led by two Argentine conservation groups to save the bird, known in Spanish as the macá tobiano. That initiative has helped spur broader habitat-protection initiatives on and near the plateau—most notably, the creation of Patagonia National Park, in Dec. 2014, as well as projects aimed at linking the park with conservation lands being assembled in Chile.
“[This is] an excellent example of how work to save a threatened species can lead to the establishment of a protected area,” says Rodrigo Fariña of the Argentine Birds Foundation, one of the Argentine environmental groups leading grebe-protection efforts.
The young environmentalists began lending a hand here in 2010, after organizers of the conservation project concluded that hooded grebe nesting grounds needed active protection. Every summer they set up tents on the shores of lakes in the region to count the birds, observe their behavior and—most critically—ward off attacks on hooded grebe eggs and chicks, particularly by two invasive species: American mink (Neovison vison) and the kelp gull (Larus dominicanus). Mink were brought to Patagonia decades ago with the goal of fostering a fur industry. Some of the animals escaped farms and, as in the case of beavers brought to Tierra del Fuego for the same purpose, proliferated once in the wild due to a dearth of natural predators. (See “In Tierra del Fuego, beavers seem all too at home”—EcoAméricas, Jan. ’16.) The gulls have increasingly ventured inland from the coast over the years—thanks, experts say, to the proliferation of open-air dumps.
The hooded grebe is found nowhere outside Patagonia, and has been seen in the wild outside Santa Cruz on only occasion—in the Straits of Magellan. It has become perilously scarce in recent years, its population dwindling to an estimated 750 from 3,000 to 5,000 in the 1980s. Listed since 2012 as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the bird is no longer seen in some lakes where scientists earlier had observed 500 hooded grebes each summer.
In winter, when most lakes in the Santa Cruz highlands are frozen, hooded grebes inhabit several coastal estuaries where rivers of the province—most notably the Coyle, the Gallegos and the Santa Cruz—reach the Atlantic Ocean. In spring they migrate by an as-yet unknown route to the inland lakes, then build nests with an aquatic plant known here as vinagrilla (Myriophyllum elatinoides).
Since scientists connected with the conservation project began sounding the alarm on behalf of the hooded grebe, the bird’s protection has become a public cause. The bird had already been a prized symbol of Santa Cruz province, receiving monument status from the provincial legislature in 2001, and even becoming the namesake of a Santa Cruz province rugby club.
To save it, the nonprofits leading the grebe-protection efforts—Argentine Birds Foundation and Environment South Association, a group based in Santa Cruz province—are collaborating with experts from Argentina’s foremost government scientific organization, the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet). Support for the work has come from public sources such as the Santa Cruz provincial government; businesses including Toyota, which has loaned pick-up trucks, and the Argentine oil and gas company Pan American Energy; and nonprofits including International Conservation Fund of Canada and Idea Wild of the United States.
Collaborating with Conicet, Argentine Birds Foundation and Environment South Association have worked to pinpoint the threats to hooded grebes, conducted bird counts and carried out public-education projects including production of a documentary. (See Documents & Resources.)
As is evident each summer, they also have succeeded in attracting young people from within Argentina and beyond to help secure nesting grounds. Under the guidance of project scientists, participants who camp here each summer patrol the plateau’s dozens of lakes to locate nesting ground and help monitor populations of the bird. They also help to set out traps that ensnare and kill the mink and use firearms to scare off and, if necessary, kill invading gulls. Project participants have their hands full. In March of 2011 a scientist doing research on the birds found that a single mink had killed 33 hooded grebes in their nests. And native species cause problems, too—among them the flightless Fuegian steamer duck (Tachyeres pteneres), which can attack fledgling hooded grebes.
Other threats loom. Climate change is believed to be causing a lowering of water levels in the lakes as well as a strengthening of the already powerful winds, conditions that make it harder for hooded grebes to build nests. Meanwhile, scientists say trout introduced in many Patagonian watercourses for sport fishing can compete with the hooded grebe for food. The trout were not introduced in the Lake Buenos Aires Plateau, however, and so are not believed to be causing problems there as yet. Experts suggest that this might be why hooded grebes have appeared in recent years to prefer to summer on the plateau.
“If nobody does something, the hooded grebe will disappear,” says Patrick Buchanan, a 21-year-old Argentine who studies tourism in Malaysia but returns every summer to take part in the hooded grebe conservation project. Says Buchanan: “Conservation isn’t a strange thing; it’s a matter of reversing damage done by man.”
For years, Argentine Birds and Environment South, backed by other Argentine environmental groups, called for creation of a protected area in the Lake Buenos Aires plateau region to ensure conservation of the hooded grebe’s nesting grounds. A major step in that direction came on Dec. 16, 2014, when Argentina’s Congress created Patagonia National Park, a conservation area of 53,000 hectares (205 sq mi) that includes a portion of the plateau and what was once nearby ranchland.
The park, Argentina’s newest, represents a joint public and private effort. It comprises 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres) donated by Santa Cruz province and 34,000 hectares (84,000 acres) once owned by El Sauco, a private sheep ranch that the Argentine environmental group Flora and Fauna Foundation, bought in 2012. Flora and Fauna then removed the livestock and turned the land over to the provincial government on condition it be preserved. The province then conveyed it to the federal government, allowing the creation of Patagonia National Park.
Flora and Fauna, whose mission is to promote expansion of the country’s protected areas, was created in 2010 by environmentalists who for years worked with the late Douglas Tompkins. Tompkins, who died last December in a kayaking accident in General Carrera/Buenos Aires Lake, was a U.S. clothing entrepreneur who in his later years dedicated himself to land conservation and restoration in Argentina and Chile. He purchased enormous tracts in both countries for the purpose of creating national protected areas.
Argentina’s Patagonia National Park is only a few kilometers from a natural reserve across the border in Chile that belongs to Patagonian Conservation, a foundation created by Tompkins. The 80,000-hectare (309-sq-mi) Chilean reserve was once Valle Chacabuco, one of Chile’s largest cattle ranches. Patagonian Conservation bought the ranch in 2004 with the goal of linking two publicly owned natural areas adjoining it—Jeinimeni to the north and Tamango to the south—and creating a new Chilean national park. Paula Herrera, a veterinarian with Patagonian Conservation, says scientists estimate that Valle Chacabuco is home to 10% of the South Andean deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus) remaining in Chile. Known in Spanish as the huemul, the animal has strong symbolic importance in Chile, to the point of occupying a place—along with the Andean condor—on Chile’s coat of arms.
Tompkins hoped to build a large cross-border protected area in the region. Flora and Fauna and Patagonian Conservation have taken on that goal, which would involve establishing adjoining national parks. As part of the effort, Flora and Fauna already is working to expand Patagonia National Park. With funding from an unidentified European donor, the group has bought four more ranches on the Argentine side, assembling a total of 74,000 hectares (286 sq mi) for eventual inclusion in the park.
The most recent of these purchases, made last year, won national press coverage because it included Los Toldos, a 24,000-hectare (93-sq-mi) property featuring a scenic canyon and the Cave of Hands, or Cueva de las Manos, a site of prehistoric cave art. Cueva de las Manos was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). It is known for caves whose walls are decorated with images of human hands as well as of guanacos and other animals painted 9,500 to 13,000 years ago.
Flora and Fauna plans to restore natural habitat on ranchland where livestock has dwindled over the years—the result, experts say, of overgrazing and, in the case of sheep farms, wool-price declines amid growth in manufactured fiber. After purchasing land, the organization removes sheep and cattle as well as fencing, and attempts to improve soil conditions.
“Our guiding philosophy is to reinforce the idea of conservation in the community of this area, and generate new local development mechanisms through tourism and environmental stewardship,” says the foundation’s coordinator in Santa Cruz, Guido Vittone. “In 2012, we bought our first ranch to be dedicated to conservation and, thanks to the hooded grebe project, we attracted interest from officials with [Argentina’s] National Parks Administration and provincial and national legislators. That’s how we achieved creation of the national park, which today is evidence of the environment of the Patagonian steppe before productive activities were begun.”
Adds Vittone: “For us, the most important thing is to eliminate fencing, which impedes the movement of guanacos and other native animals. I am convinced that this paradigm can coexist with [ranching] activities in Santa Cruz province. I tell ranchers who look at our project warily that in recent years their ranches have appreciated in value, thanks to the proximity of the national park.”
For his part, Rodrigo Fariña of Argentine Birds emphasizes the need to ensure the conservation effort can continue long-term. Says Fariña: “[The project’s success] will depend on what we can sustain over time. We’ll only have a chance of saving the hooded grebe if we persist over many years.”
Ignacio Roesler, a University of Buenos Aires biologist whose doctoral thesis focused on conservation of the hooded grebe, says efforts to save the bird have broad biological benefit. “In a dry environment such as the Patagonian steppe,” he notes, “lake ecosystems are a source of life.” At the same time, he adds, “there also is a moral reason, and that is that man created the conditions that are causing the disappearance of the hooded grebe, and so is the one who should repair the damage.” Says Roesler: “When we ask ourselves why we are doing this, we say that the hooded grebe, although we must do something, might go extinct. But it can’t go extinct without us trying to do something.”
Pablo Hernández, a trained park ranger who for several summers volunteered as a nesting-area guardian, agrees.
“The macá tobiano [hooded grebe] project has helped us protect critical habitat of the Santa Cruz plateaus and the Patagonian steppe, which have been punished by decades of excessive sheep grazing and today face the threat of mining,” says Hernández, currently environment secretary for the Santa Cruz province community of Los Antiguos. “We believe we can attract tourists interested in bird watching and conservation, and that in this way we can contribute to the economic development of the region.”
Adds Hernández: “Our dream is that the [Patagonia] National Park expands and becomes part of a great protected area that continues into Chile, a sort of binational park.”
- Daniel Gutman