By Bárbara Saavedra and Cristián Samper
On the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego in the Patagonia region of Chile, you’ll find one of the most stunning wild places in the hemisphere, complete with bountiful peat bogs, sub-Antarctic woodlands, windswept steppes, and snow-covered mountain ranges.
Spanning 1,160 square miles, the Karukinka landscape is home to Patagonia’s unique wildlife, including the endangered culpeo fox, the Andean condor, guanacos (wild relatives of the llama), and the Magellanic woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in the Americas. It’s also a place rich in plant species like southern beech, Chilean fire bush, white dog orchid, and sundew.
Karukinka serves as a groundbreaking model of how the private sector can impact conservation. In one of the largest donations ever made for conservation, the investment bank Goldman Sachs generously gave the lands that today form the Karukinka protected area to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in 2004. The bank continues to provide support for basic park operations.
Today we also work with more than 50 private and public institutions promoting Patagonian conservation in Chile. These include the country’s Ministry of Environment, all local schools in Tierra del Fuego, mining and wine industry leaders, and local conservation organizations like Reforestemos Patagonia.
Since becoming steward of Karukinka a decade ago, WCS has had numerous conservation successes. Some highlights include: protecting 60 percent of Chile’s guanaco population; estimating the carbon content and flux of peat lands; and working with the Chilean government to eradicate beavers, an invasive species, from the region.
Beavers pose a particular challenge to the landscape. With no predators and plenty of resources, these rodents, introduced from Canada 60 years ago, consume and destroy forests and peat bogs. Their dam building also contaminates running water, endangering native plants and animals.
Recognizing the threat, Chile and Argentina’s governments signed an agreement in 2008 to control beavers in Tierra del Fuego and restore the forests that have been destroyed. WCS and its partners have provided technical expertise to the government and stand ready to assist in this urgent process.
Climate change and peat bog mining also threaten the landscape. Thanks to their ability to trap greenhouse gases, Karukinka’s peat bogs are among the reserve’s most valuable resources. Yet a demand for peat as organic soil enrichment and ornamental horticulture has placed the landscape at risk.
In Chile, peat is considered a mineral and is governed under mining law. Karukinka contains about 75,000 hectares of peatlands (almost 80 percent of the total that exists in the region), which represents a vast water reservoir. But even though WCS owns the land, we don’t own the subsoil or the peat.
As the steward charged with protecting the 728,960-acre natural park, however, we are working to ensure projects like peat mining and fisheries that impact Karukinka are sustainable and do not impinge upon long-term conservation.
Through WCS’s management of Karukinka over the past 10 years, we have developed a conservation mission for the entire Patagonian coast and have become a small engine for local development.
We’re especially proud of establishing an education program in Tierra del Fuego. Our first project, with a group of 50 students from the only high school on the island, looked at controlling exotic species. Karukinka’s big and beautiful ecosystems awed the students, who shared with us how moved they were to be part of this conservation effort in their backyard.
Once slated for forestry exploitation, Karukinka is now a protected area with the largest guanaco population in Tierra del Fuego and a sustained elephant seal population on the seacoast. Earlier this year, the natural park was selected as one of the world’s most “breathtaking” places in a competition organized by the European Outdoor Conservation Association (EOCA).
In the next decade and beyond, we envision a vast network of well-managed terrestrial and marine protected areas across southern Latin America that work in concert to protect wildlife while inspiring a new generation of conservationists.
Bárbara Saavedra is Chile Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Cristián Samper is WCS President and CEO .