Rewilding in Patagonia National Park is restoring a delicate ecosystem

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Chile’s new park was created with the aim of regenerating what was an important corridor for wildlife and humans for millennia.

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Inot Patagonia National Park in the south of Chile, the condors cross the blue and pure sky. Cougars roam the tawny hillsides and guanacos roam the honeyed pampas, greeting visitors with a deadpan, wide-eyed welcome. The savannah-like landscape teems with life.

Nomadic indigenous peoples of Patagonia once traveled through this natural corridor, hunting wildlife along the torrent of the Chacabuco River, but in the 20and century, vast cattle ranches hunted endemic species and razed forest and grasslands. Patagonia National Park was founded in hopes of changing that through regeneration, a holistic approach to ecosystem restoration that has been prioritized by the UN in 2021 to mitigate climate change. The newly thriving ecosystem here is proof that it works.

The park is the latest addition to the Patagonian Parks Route—a conservation project founded in 2018 by the nonprofit Storage of tompkins and his offspring, Reviving Chile– and is perhaps the most successful example of rewilding in the country. Now visitors to the new Explora Lodge in the park, which opened in late 2021, can get first-hand insight into restoration efforts and support continued conservation. Hikes, bike rides, and overland adventures led by expert naturalists immerse travelers in nature, where they learn about the area’s history along the way.

A harmonious approach to conservation

Rewilding in Patagonia National Park involved a combination of removal of invasive species – in this case, 25,000 sheep and cattle that overgrazed the landscape – reintroduction of endemic wildlife, including condors and rhea (ostrich from South America), and natural reforestation. “When you talk about rewilding, it’s about active restoration of the ecosystem that involves everything,” says Carolina Morgado, director of Rewilding Chile. “You want to achieve a complete ecosystem.” This distinguishes reseeding from other sustainability initiatives which may be more siloed.

The removal of 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) of ranch fences has helped to naturally restore the corridors used by guanacos. The cougars that hunt them followed, as well as the huemul (endangered Andean deer), which were recently identified as one of 20 mammals worldwide whose restoration is critical to ecosystem health. Tompkins Conservation continues to monitor the species, and a Huemul National Corridor project is underway which includes the Patagonia National Park.

Rewilding Chile has also rehabilitated and released condors into the park, where they have plenty of room to thrive, and established a rhea breeding center. When rheas are large enough to survive on their own, they are released and act as seed dispersers, fertilizing grasslands. Without the impact of overgrazing, the region’s lenga and nirre forests have begun to grow again, which travelers will trek on trails like the Lagunas Altas, a 23-kilometre (14-mile) hike that climbs to a line of steep ridge lined with shimmering aquamarine lakes.

Regenerating the pampas, forest and wetlands not only helps create a healthy ecosystem in the region, but could also benefit the entire planet. Rewilding Chile’s vision is for Patagonia National Park to be part of a “green lung” in South America, with the potential to sequester more carbon than the Amazon jungle.

Patagonia National Park is a hiker's paradise.

Restoration of a centuries-old hallway

Visitors hiking or biking along the park’s trails won’t just discover a newly re-wild landscape; they will also follow in the footsteps of nomadic indigenous peoples who have roamed the region for centuries. “The Chacabuco Valley was a corridor for animal and human movement,” says César Méndez, an archaeologist at the Patagonia Ecosystems Research Center.

Prior to colonization, the Aonikenk peoples of Patagonia and their ancestors traveled from Argentina to what is now Chile, hunting guanacos and rheas along their migration route. A six-hour round-trip hike takes visitors to the Cueva de las Manos, or Cave of Painted Hands, where more than 210 red ocher designs, including handprints and hunting scenes, are adorned on the shaded walls of the cave. “We know this was a recurring area that people passed through because the cave was painted over six or seven different time periods dating back 9,000 years,” Méndez says.

The creation of the Patagonia National Park helped gain support for archaeologists who study and preserve human history in the park. “It got a lot more attention from the public and the government,” Méndez says. Along with her colleague Amalia Nuevo-Delaunay, Méndez also trains Explora guides in this history to help educate guests who visit historic sites.

The nomadic indigenous peoples of the region have left few traces in the landscape, which we could all learn from. “It’s only in the last 100 years that the valley has undergone a dramatic transformation because of human activity,” says Nicolas Vigil, head of explorations at Explora Patagonia National Park. “Learning about human history here is an important lesson in how to coexist with nature.” Visitors can delve deeper into the past at Patagonia Park Museum adjoining the cottage.

The Aviles Trail in Patagonia National Park was once used by gauchos.

A new relationship with nature

Just as human presence is an important facet of the park’s history, people are still an essential part of the ecosystem. That’s why, from the start, Tompkins Conservation has worked hard to employ local residents in their reseeding work. The establishment of the park has also supported gateway communities, laying the foundations for a strong conservation-based economy in the remote Aysen region.

“None of our conservation work would be possible without educating the public and building government support by showing that national parks are an investment in the economy of the region,” says Ingrid Espinoza, director of conservation for Rewilding Chile. Adding a for-profit company like Explora to the park is also a powerful tool for funding conservation initiatives and raising public awareness.

The lodge plans to develop programs in conjunction with Rewilding Chile to give guests deeper insight into some of their projects, helping to track and monitor species at risk and provide data. But simply by visiting the property, guests contribute to regeneration efforts with a portion of the revenue being reinvested into conservation of the park. “Beneath the tourist attraction, there is an opportunity to preserve this place,” says Morgado.

Perhaps most importantly, locals and travelers will leave with a greater appreciation for this delicate ecosystem and the work being done to protect it. “Conservation is about knowing, loving and protecting a place,” says Espinoza. In a newly re-wild landscape where guanacos once again gallop through the windswept grasses and huemul deer roam the beech forest, there is much to cherish.

>> Next: Scotland set to become world’s first ‘regeneration nation’

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