Refuge in Chile raises hopes of saving endangered deer

By Maria M.Mur

Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve, Chile, Oct 8 (EFE).- With only some 1,500 animals left in the wild, sightings of the huemul, or south Andean deer, are rare, but an initiative operating from this private reserve in southern Chile holds out the promise of a brighter future for the species.

Staff at the Huemul Conservation Center have already managed to achieve the unprecedented feat of breeding huemuls in a controlled environment and releasing them into Chilean Patagonia, home to 70 percent of the surviving members of the species.

“There were several unsuccessful projects because there was much ignorance about huemuls and they applied conventional techniques of herd management, confining them in corrals without taking into account their sensitivity,” the Huilo Huilo Foundation’s Eduardo Arias told EFE.

He said that the huemul, which is depicted in Chile’s national coat of arms, is prone to suffering from capture myopathy, “a kind of multisystem collapse that occurs in situations of much stress.”

The foundation is currently caring for 30 huemuls distributed across 100 hectares (247 acres) of territory protected by fences more than 4 m (13 ft) high.

“Here they have all of the environmental conditions to reproduce autonomously, but they are free of their principal predators, the pumas,” chief ranger Marcelo Sandoval told EFE.

The plan is to release three or four additional huemuls next year to join the six others living in the wild inside the 100,000-hectare reserve in Huilo Huilo, 800 km (500 mi) south of Santiago.

In 1973, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated the huemul as an endangered species, and by the 1980s, the combination of large-scale forestry, predation by pumas and poaching had wiped out all of the huemuls in Huilo Huilo.

“There are fewer huemuls in the world than pandas,” Sandoval pointed out.

The foundation embarked on its project in 2005 with the relocation of a male and female pair of huemuls from the Aysen region to Huilo Huilo.

Eleven years later, the foundation was ready to reintroduce huemuls to the wild using the technique known as soft release, allowing the deer to exist the conversation center grounds through an opening in the fence.

Another release took place in 2019 and the end of that year brought the project’s first huemul birth in the wild, a milestone Arias recalls as “exciting.”

The Huilo Huilo Foundation’s approach is now being used at the Shoonem center in Argentina.

And the foundation recently entered into collaboration with Argentina’s Lanin National Park, on the other side of the Andes, where the last confirmed sighting of a huemul was more than 30 years ago.

“There are probabilities that huemuls exist in our park and that those who are free cross the mountains because they don’t recognize borders, and we have to be prepared,” Lanin ranger Carlos Gau told EFE.

The huemul is also an umbrella species: one whose conservation is expected to confer protection to a large number of naturally co-occurring species. EFE pbd-mmm/dr

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