Wildlife conservation volunteering in Patagonia

This article was first published on the Roving Reporter blog by World Land Trust.

Monitor pumas and their prey in the wilderness of Argentina and discover what it takes to restore ecological balance

There are few places in the world today where you feel totally isolated – no WiFi, no TV, no phones, not another building from one horizon to the next. For me, this is paradise. Welcome to La Esperanza Wildlife Refuge.

La Esperanza is in a buffer zone, created to enhance the protection of Península Valdés, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best places on Earth to get up-close to marine life – from southern elephant seals and magellanic penguins, to the mighty killer whale.

But there is as much to discover on land as there is on shore: the elusive puma, for example, and its principal prey: the llama-look-alike, guanaco.

La Esperanza refuge was created in 2003 when conservationists from Fundación Patagonia Natural with the support of World Land Trust (WLT) bought this land from a sheep farmer and turned it into a protected area.

The grassland and bushes of the Patagonian scrub are recovering from more than 100 years of overgrazing, but now the sheep have been replaced by native guanacos, whose numbers here have risen from 100 to over 850.

No longer hunted by local people, the guanacos’ successful population increase has lured back their top predator: the puma. A natural balance is being restored.

Volunteering at La Esperanza

As volunteers, we spend our days recording signs of pumas; tracking paw prints and faeces to monitor the state of the species in the reserve and the surrounding areas.

At the beginning of our stay, we head out on a 4×4 truck with ranger Adrián Rodríguez into the heart of the reserve to set up camera-traps. These devices are unmanned cameras left in strategic positions, triggered by infra-red sensors to capture footage of rare or elusive species.

When we return a few days later, squeals of excitement spread through the volunteer group as one-by-one we spot a great big paw in the sticky mud and it’s slap-bang beside the camera-trap. It’s unmistakably a puma’s and it’s fresh.

Frantically, we take apart the camera-trap, put its SD card in the laptop and scroll through the photos. As the anticipation mounts, we watch as the thumbnails reveal pitch blackness, guanaco after guanaco, but no puma. We’re unlucky.

But it’s enough to know that they’re here; Fundación Patagonia Natural is creating conditions where this top predator can thrive and restoring an ecological balance is an incredible achievement.

Overgrazing and desertification

One of the greatest threats to have faced the native flora and fauna of Patagonia was the introduction of sheep in the 20th century. Domestic animals, especially sheep, cause far greater damage to grasses as they graze than native herbivores, like guanaco. Sheep are selective grazers and their grazing pattern makes it virtually impossible for certain plants to recover.

Damaged grasslands retain less moisture, so the ground cover begins to break up and this hinders the re-growth of native, perennial plants that are more capable of absorbing carbon dioxide and enriching soils.

This reduced vegetation cover leaves sandy soils vulnerable to wind erosion from Patagonia’s infamously ferocious weather. The result: vast areas of Patagonia have already turned to desert, virtual dead zones for flora and fauna.

But not all is lost. Rangers like Adrián and conservationists from Fundación Patagonia Natural are demonstrating what can be achieved if a natural balance is restored – it’s hard work, it needs greater support from volunteers and donors, but it can be done.

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