The Argentine Central Bank this month began printing a new 20-peso note, the third in a series of differently denominated bills dedicated to native fauna. The featured animal this time is one that in recent years has staged a controversial comeback. Following the issue of 500- and 200-peso notes depicting, respectively, the near-threatened jaguar (Panthera onca) and the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), Argentina’s Central Bank on Oct. 4 unveiled 20-peso bills emblazoned with the image of a guanaco (Lama guanicoe).
The adaptable South American camelid, found at elevations ranging from sea level to 5,000 meters (16,000 feet), likely numbered 30 to 50 million before Europeans arrived in the region, according to biologist Kenneth Raedeke of the University of Washington in the United States. Its population began declining due to hunting and habitat destruction during the colonial period, Raedeke says. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that today the animals number 2.2 million, with significant herds in Argentina and Chile and near-negligible populations currently in Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru.
In Argentina—home to some 80% of the region’s guanacos, according to the IUCN—the majority of the animals inhabit the southern Patagonian province of Santa Cruz. They’ve been a fixture there for millennia: paintings dating back at least 9,500 years in the province’s Cave of Hands, a Unesco World Heritage Site, include depictions of guanacos.
The Central Bank presented the new, guanaco-themed bills as reminders that “protecting Nature is a collective and imperative task.” But in Santa Cruz province, rebounding populations of the animal—the result of international protection efforts and increased habitat due to a decline in sheep farming—have begun to cause grumbling.
Decades of falling international wool prices and natural impacts ranging from recurring droughts to cross-border ash deposits from Chile’s Hudson Volcano eruption in 1991, have contributed to what has become known in Santa Cruz as a “rural exodus.” The result is that the province’s sheep population has plummeted from nearly 7 million in 1978 to 2.3 million today, and 40% of the province’s ranches—representing 10 million hectares of land—have been abandoned.
The guanaco has filled the void. Though authoritative population figures are hard to come by, experts agree guanaco numbers in the province have been on the rise. The IUCN estimates that in Argentina as a whole, guanacos now number 1.225 million to 1.890 million compared to just 600,000 in 1990, with most of them in Santa Cruz. For its part, the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) in 2001 reported that aerial observation showed a population of 401,500 throughout Argentine Patagonia, which includes Santa Cruz as well as the provinces of Chubut, Neuquén, Río Negro and Tierra del Fuego. Of those, some 223,800 were in Santa Cruz, the agency said. An update done by INTA in 2015 pegged the population in Argentine Patagonia at over two million, with more than 1.3 million in Santa Cruz.
None of which sits well with the province’s remaining ranchers, who contend that guanacos compete with their sheep for grass and thus compromise their bottom line. Guanacos also are being blamed for walking onto roadways and causing vehicle accidents. Though there is a dearth of data substantiating the extent of such problems, the guanaco is being referred to increasingly in local media as “a plague.”
To address the situation, the Santa Cruz provincial government has drafted plans to control the guanaco population by allowing limited commercial harvesting of the animals so that their meat can be sold domestically and abroad. Some experts say that unless commercial use of guanacos is allowed, pressure will mount on the provincial government to take direct action to cull the herds. “Ranches are a very important source of income for the province, and we should protect them,” says Amanda Manero, the provincial government’s director of wildlife and protected areas. “Commercial exploitation of the guanaco in a sustainable manner is an excellent option.”
The province’s first official salvo against guanacos came in 2012, when the provincial legislature’s Natural Resources Commission called on the executive branch to declare the animal a “harmful species” and allow—even incentivize—hunting of guanacos. The call, not heeded at the time by the provincial government, drew fire from scientists. A group of public and private university researchers who specialize in Patagonian fauna issued a document in which they said the guanaco “causes less erosion than sheep,” and added: “the expanding process of desertification that Patagonia is undergoing has structural causes that are not related to the presence of these or other species of native herbivores, but instead to the inadequate management of domesticated species and of pastureland.” On the involvement of guanacos in vehicle accidents, the scientists recommended improved signage on roadways and efforts to get drivers to reduce speeds.
In December of 2014, Santa Cruz’s provincial government’s executive branch approved a guanaco management plan that cited the animal’s growing numbers and the resulting problems of “overgrazing in the lands where there is livestock activity.” The plan highlighted the need to “reconcile” the presence of guanacos with the province’s “sustainable livestock production and other economic activities.”
In 2016 the province launched a pilot project to shear wild guanacos, an activity that the national government had formally allowed since 2006, but that had not caught on in Santa Cruz province. The goal of the project, overseen by the state-run National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet), was to “show ranchers that guanacos could cease being a problem and instead become an economic resource,” says Pablo Carmanchahi, a Conicet biologist. But wild shearing is not easy. The greatest challenge, Carmanchahi says, is catching the fast animals, a task often requiring horses or motorized vehicles.
Provincial authorities in 2016 also allowed limited hunting of the animals and sale of the meat. Officials say that if a permanent such regimen is adopted, it would allow ranches to harvest the animals under government-set quotas. This initiative, however, met a major hurdle: since national regulations prohibit the transport between provinces or export of products derived from dead guanacos, the only place the animal’s meat could be sold was within Santa Cruz. “Since last year some 200 guanacos have gone to slaughterhouses, and some restaurants in tourism areas are successfully experimenting with different recipes,” Manero says. “It is the first time guanaco meat has been sold in Santa Cruz, but our market is very small, so we have asked the national government to authorize sale [of guanaco meat] to the rest of the country and the world.”
Santa Cruz’s efforts appear to be paying off. On Oct. 4, Argentine Environment and Sustainable Development Minister Sergio Bergman signed a resolution allowing meat from 200 Santa Cruz guanacos to be sold within Argentina or exported. Officials say that if seen as successful, the policy could lead to revision of the regulation to allow domestic and export sale of Santa Cruz guanaco meat on a permanent basis.
“Guanaco populations in Santa Cruz have increased a great amount in recent years,” says Argentine Environmental Policy, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Secretary Diego Moreno. “Sheep ranching activity diminished due to desertification and economic factors, and the niche left empty by sheep was occupied by the guanaco. We believe that this is a very good moment to boost the integral use of guanaco for commercial purposes, generate a new industry and see that livestock operators, who today have problems with guanacos, receive a benefit by developing a complimentary activity.”
Conservation groups accuse Santa Cruz authorities of being more concerned with livestock production than conservation. They point out that the Santa Cruz province Directorate of Fauna is a unit of the province’s Agricultural Council, an agency that focuses on farm output.
“It is an error to prioritize sheep, which is an introduced species, over the guanaco,” Obdulio Menghi, an Argentine biologist and former scientific coordinator of the secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) told EcoAméricas in an interview this month.
Menghi also cautions that guanaco fiber sales—and Argentina’s international reputation—could suffer if there is reason to believe guanacos are being killed for their fiber rather than sheared and let go. Says Menghi: “It must be ensured that meat production is not accompanied by the sale of the dead animals’ fiber, since that is rejected internationally and would pose difficulties for Argentina.”
Menghi currently heads the Argentine Biodiversity Foundation a Buenos Aires-based nonprofit. On Oct. 24, the foundation and five other environmental organizations issued a joint communiqué stating that the guanaco “has a fundamental role in Patagonia’s ecosystems” and that livestock, not the guanaco, are responsible for desertification in the region. The groups assert that growth in guanaco numbers might be due to a decline in the population of its natural predator, the puma (Puma concolor), which is being hunted with the encouragement of Santa Cruz’s provincial government, the objective being to safeguard livestock. Provincial authorities reported killings of 1,106 pumas in 2014 and 2015 “without population studies or environmental-impact evaluation of the hunting that is being promoted,” the organizations charge.
The history of human impact on Argentina’s guanaco populations is long. For decades, workers on Santa Cruz sheep ranches would ride out in November and December to “chulenguear.” The activity had its cruel side: gauchos would guide their horses into the windy Patagonian expanses to find recently born guanacos, which they called “chulengos,” and kill them by clubbing them on the head. Their objective was not fiber or meat, but instead the young guanacos’ extremely soft skin, which was used to make blankets following the techniques that traditionally had been employed by the indigenous peoples of Patagonia. The skins drew strong interest in the European market. Export records are only available back to 1950, but they show that in the 1970s and 1980s annual exports of skins from young guanacos averaged 70,000 a year. Ranch owners looked on the activity favorably, since it controlled guanaco populations
But in 1978, guanacos were listed in Appendix II of Cites, the multilateral agreement aimed at ensuring that trade in plant and animal products doesn’t threaten species survival. Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily in danger of extinction but which nevertheless are subject to controls to safeguard their populations. In 1992, Cites authorities, concerned about continued killing of the animals in Patagonia, took the extra step of calling on Argentina to disclose the “biological basis” it was using to ensure that the hunting of young guanacos for their skins was not putting the animal’s population at risk.
Since Argentina had no research on that question and thus could not respond, Cites authorities in 1993 recommended that member countries suspend imports of guanaco products of any kind until an adequate guanaco management plan were developed. At this point the days of chulengueadas drew to an end in Santa Cruz, with the final blow coming in 1998. That’s when the Argentine Natural Resources Secretariat banned the export and transport between Argentine provinces of any product derived from guanaco until “a management plan for the sustainable use of the species” was drafted.
Though such a plan eventually was approved in 2006, its focus was on live shearing of wild guanacos and sale of the fiber—not on the sale of meat or other products obtained by killing guanacos, which remained illegal. Meanwhile, guanaco herds were growing, and sheep ranchers in Santa Cruz began regarding the animal as a threat.
“The guanaco is an emblem of Santa Cruz, but many people are beginning to hate it,” Miguel O’Byrne, president of the Santa Cruz Federation of Agricultural Institutions (FIAS), a leading farm lobby in the province, told EcoAméricas in a recent interview. “Although experts say that the population of guanacos in Santa Cruz is increasing by 5% to 10% a year, we producers are talking about rates of 10% to 20%, since climate change has brought us milder winters in which there is not as much snow, which is the guanaco’s principal enemy.”
Added O’Byrne: “As a consequence, there is phenomenal overgrazing, because there are ever more animals eating the available forage. If the population of guanacos is not seriously controlled, in 10 or 20 years we will have a most serious desertification problem.”
O’Byrne is a descendent of English settlers who arrived on the mainland in 1884 from the Malvinas Islands, also known as the Falkland Islands. Sheep had been introduced in the colonial era in central Argentina’s Pampas region, but when the cultivation of crops and cattle ranching began to expand in that highly fertile region, sheep ranching was displaced to Patagonia. “This province was populated with sheep and for many years there was no other economic activity,” O’Byrne said.
Sheep ranching hit its apex in Patagonia in the 1930s. Gabriel Oliva, an INTA researcher in Santa Cruz, says Argentina’s five Patagonian provinces had 20 million sheep, along with a million cows and a million goats. “This exceeded the carrying capacity of the soil, and the situation continued for 50 years,” Oliva says.
Alberto Soriano, a pioneering agronomist in Argentina, published papers in the 1950s on the erosion of Patagonian soils as a result of overgrazing. INTA, for its part, has issued numerous reports on the subject. Based on satellite analysis, the agency estimates the carrying capacity of Santa Cruz soils at 3.1 million sheep.
“Today in the province, if it were just a matter of livestock we’d be fine because we have 2.3 million sheep and 100,000 cows, which eat the equivalent to 600,000 sheep,” says Oliva. “The serious problem is the presence of 1.3 million guanacos, which is a very large superimposition of their diet on that of the sheep. Based on their food consumption, each guanaco is equivalent to one and a half sheep.”
Adds Oliva: “In Patagonia 30% of the soil is already severely degraded, and with the overpopulation of guanacos the situation will become worse. We believe that the solution is for the national government to authorize nationwide sales and export of guanaco meat at an industrial scale as soon as possible.”
- Daniel Gutman