Herders using dogs to keep pumas at bay


Ezequiel, one of 13 guardian dogs that have been trained and given to Argentine herders to ward off pumas and foxes. (Photo by Federico Gregorio)

Every December, Mario Soto and his wife Julieta spend a day on horseback along with their two children, herding their 300 goats to the Andean uplands for summer grazing just as the couple’s parents and grandparents did before them. The goats will feast on fresh summer grasses in the high mountain valley, located 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level, while the lowland pastures they left behind are given time to recover. Then in March, the family will move the herd back down to its winter grazing grounds.

Raising livestock is not easy in Malargüe, an enormous municipality in Argentina’s central-west province of Mendoza. Given the arid and mountainous region’s extreme temperatures, frequent drought and low-quality grasses, it’s no wonder that cattle and crop-farming operations are scarce. Yet production of livestock—now overwhelmingly goats and to a lesser extent sheep—has been an important economic activity since European-descended Argentines took control of the area and displaced indigenous Mapuche communities in the late 1800s. For the most part, it is a small-scale pursuit conducted by families who move seasonally between higher and lower grasslands to ensure sufficient grazing for their herds.

These herders say their work, challenging as it has always been, has become far tougher over the past decade due to a growing population of pumas and other carnivores in the region and, as a result, more frequent attacks on their herds. The increased presence of predators has not been explained or even confirmed in scientific studies, but herders are adamant that the incidence of attacks has surged. In February, Soto described one while showing EcoAméricas his herd’s summer-pastureland and his family’s home there, a precarious structure of stone, dried mud and wooden boards with no electricity or cell-phone signal.

“Last year I came down from the summer pasture in late March, and on April 1 pumas killed 21 of my adult goats and 48 kid goats in one night,” he said. “It is a desperate situation because this is our livelihood, and the attacks are becoming more frequent, in both winter and summer. A few years ago, it was news when a puma attacked. Now, they show up everywhere, and each time they kill 5, 8 or 10 of my goats. If the brakes aren’t put on pumas, and also foxes, which kill small goats, we’ll be shut down.”

Attacks like this one often prompt retaliation, with herders killing predators using means such as poison and traps. The ongoing battle has occasionally sparked national debate, as was the case in January 2018, when authorities determined that Malargüe herders had killed not only a puma, but also 34 condors, which are subject to special conservation protection. They did so, officials said, by contaminating a sheep carcass with the pesticide carbofuran and leaving it in a remote location some 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level.

Witnesses said such tactics are common, with the prime targets being pumas and foxes—not condors, which can be killed incidentally when they feed on poisoned bait meat. Three herders were charged with environmental crimes in 2019 in connection with the condor deaths, but the case is still pending.

Against that backdrop, conservationists have persuaded a select group of herders, Soto among them, to try another livestock-protection approach—one aimed at discouraging predators from attacking in the first place. The would-be solution, in a word, is dogs.

Since October, Soto has taken part in a program featuring the use of canines trained to protect livestock, an effort organized by the Argentine office of the international nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The effort is backed by partners including the Argentine Parks Administration, the Andean Cat Alliance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mendoza provincial government and Disney Conservation, a philanthropic arm of the Walt Disney Company.

So far, Soto and 12 other goat and sheep herders in Malargüe and in the north of neighboring Neuquén province are taking part, with each of them receiving a WCS-trained dog to ward off predators. Soto’s dog, Pepo, was hard at work in February, when EcoAméricas visited the family’s summer pasture ground. Pepo spent nights in a corral where the goats are kept, then accompanied them every morning to the mountainside pastures.

“The idea of the program is to give herders a tool that can help them boost their production by overcoming losses without targeting and killing wild carnivores,” says María José Bolgeri, Mendoza coordinator of the WCS program. “We’re doing it so their [traditional] form of raising livestock can survive. And we try to provide a grain of sand to address the herders’ needs, which are many.”

Bolgeri says the project also aims to help arrest the exodus of southern Mendoza’s rural population to the cities. “Already there are few young people who see opportunity in rural areas, and entire families have left,” she notes. “We need to conserve these fragile, high-Andean landscapes not only for their flora and fauna, but also for their people.”

Malargüe, which makes up the southwestern portion of Mendoza, is one of Argentina’s largest municipalities. Dry and mountainous, it covers 42,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles)—or twice the land area of the nation of El Salvador. Yet the municipality is home to only 27,600 people, and nearly 80% of them live in its main city, also named Malargüe, according to the most recent census, which was taken in 2010.

Goats, in comparison, abound. According to a survey conducted by provincial authorities in 2019, goats numbered 445,514 in Malargüe, or well over 10% of the goats in the entire country. Meanwhile, the number of goat-raising operations in the sprawling municipality stood at 1,555. The survey analysis said the municipality was undergoing an “important rural uprooting,” with one result being a graying human population. It described Malargüe’s herders as “vulnerable” in social, economic and environmental terms.

“The herder is an artisanal occupation of great cultural value that is running the risk of disappearing,” says Francisco Parada, a history teacher and champion of local folklore who grew up in a goat-herding family. “One of the most serious problems is that there is no access to markets in which herders can sell their products advantageously.”

Herders typically do not own working land. Instead, they either use public land or property they rent from private landowners. The herders begin breeding their goats in May, with kid goats typically born in October. In December, when they are 45 to 60 days old, the new-generation goats are sold live to intermediaries—last year at a price around 2,500 pesos, or US$26, apiece, local herders report. Goats not sold in December are used for breeding or as food for the families.

Herders appear to have long since lost their patience with wild predators—even those who have been using livestock guardian dogs successfully.

“We don’t want to see pumas or foxes—they are our enemy,” says José Isidoro Moyano, a 59-year-old Malargüe goat herder interviewed in the upland pasture where he and his 23-year-old son Diego tend the family herd in the summer. “We want hunting to be allowed.”

Moyano says he received a WCS-trained dog, a female named Laica, last September and since then his herd has not been attacked. Soto says his herd has not been attacked, either, since Pepo arrived.

Both herders say that until roughly 10 years ago, wild-predator attacks on livestock were uncommon, but more recently have occurred several times annually. The reason for such an increase is a matter of discussion.

“I don’t know whether it’s that in recent years pumas came here after fleeing forest fires in Chile, as some say, but it is clear that there are more here today,” Soto says.

The forest fire theory predominates among locals, but no scientific study has been done on the subject. Some experts say hunting of other species has indirectly caused predators to turn on livestock.

“Information is not systematized, but all accounts we hear are that there are more carnivores,” says Martín Palma, chief park ranger for the southern portion of Mendoza. “The biggest problem is that populations of guanaco and other wild animals that are the prey of the carnivores have declined a great deal as a result of hunting [by humans]. So pumas and foxes have less food, and every summer when the herders go into the mountains with their goats and sheep, it’s as if they’re making a food delivery.”

Palma believes the greater abundance of carnivores also has to do with the declining presence of humans in rural areas. “There has been a notable emptying out,” he says. “It used to be that people had a lot of children and 10 or 12 people lived in each place. You’d shout, and five or six neighbors would respond. Today, nobody responds. The parents encouraged their children to go, and today the majority of those who remain in the countryside are older than 50. There is an outflow that has left more space for wild species.”

Herders protest
Herders’ worries were evident in January of this year, when dozens of them gathered in the city of Malargüe to protest the toll predators were taking on their livestock. The city’s mayor, Juan Manuel Ojeda, led the demonstration, demanding that the provincial government repeal a 1981 law prohibiting virtually all hunting of wildlife and allow controlled hunts of pumas and foxes.

Considered one of Argentina’s most environmentally minded provinces, Mendoza only allows the hunting of designated non-native species, among them red deer and wild pig, in certain locations. The mayor also called for full implementation of a 2016 law which establishes indemnities for those who have lost livestock to predators but has yet to be funded.

“Although herders don’t view wildlife in the same way we do, we respect them,” Bolgeri says. Acknowledging groups such as WCS cannot prevent the killing of predators, she says her group aims to establish trust with herding families so they become open to trying the alternative: guardian dogs.

Aside from pumas and foxes, another potential beneficiary would be the Andean cat (Leopardus jacobita), considered among the five most threatened felines in the world. The cat, found in Andean regions of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, is so small that it only poses a threat to recently born goats, and it has become so rare that herders say they seldom see it.

The Andean Cat Alliance, a four-nation network of experts and organizations working to save the animal, gave WCS two female dogs for breeding purposes—an Anatolian shepherd and a Pyrenean mountain dog. The litters they produced—one in 2019 and the other in 2020—yielded the 13 canines that WCS has placed with herders so far, some of them Pyrenean mountain dogs and some of them a Pyrenean mountain-Anatolian shepherd cross.

Born guardians
“These two breeds have been used for thousands of years in Europe to protect cattle,” says Bolgeri, a biologist. “They are dogs that are very independent, but at the same time they have a friendly character and an imposing physical presence. The puppies are born in a corral with the livestock; so through play and the perceptions of sight and smell, they relate to goats and sheep and create family ties with them instead of with other dogs. After four months, the dogs are ready to be given to herders to protect their herds.”

Ezequiel Infantino, WCS project coordinator for Neuquén, says he and other conservationists hope that as participating herders become more confident in the protection provided by dogs, they will lighten their impact not only on wildlife, but also on the land.

“When one goes to the countryside and sees the effort that the [goat and sheep] producers must make to continue their activity, one understands their anger at predators,” Infantino says. “We believe that helping them protect their livestock is also a means of protecting the land from overgrazing, because today many herders have more animals than they should because they anticipate losing a percentage of their herds to predation.”

He adds: “We want the herders to feel secure. Modern conservation includes human beings as part of the environment and nature. We are convinced that the most effective way to conserve is through people.”

- Daniel Gutman

In the Index: Herder Mario Soto with his goats in the Andean highlands. (Photo by Daniel Gutman)

María José Bolgeri
Mendoza Coordinator
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
Malargüe, Mendoza , Argentina
Tel: +(54 9223) 438-0866
Ezequiel Infantino
Neuquén Coordinator
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
Junín de los Andes, Neuquén, Argentina
Martín Palma
Chief of Park Rangers for Southern Zone
Natural Protected Areas of Mendoza
Malargüe, Mendoza, Argentina
Francisco Parada
History Teacher
Malargüe, Mendoza, Argentina
Mario Soto
Goat herder
Malargüe, Mendoza, Argentina
Tel: +(54 926) 0434-4310