It is twilight in Las Horquetas valley in Patagonia’s northern Aysén region. Several cars have pulled over beneath sandy cliffs on a wide paved road. Just metres away, three deer graze unperturbed in the glow of the car lights.
The Patagonian huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus), or South Andean deer, is the most endangered hoofed animal in South America. It has deep inset eyes, furry antlers and is no bigger than a toddler. Fewer than 1,500 survive today – two-thirds are found in Chile and the remainder in Argentina, where the huemul’s principal habitat is lenga forest and scrubland. They exist in severely fragmented groups of 101 known sub-populations, with 60% of these comprising only 10-20 individuals, making them susceptible to freak weather events. They also suffer from poor genetic diversity.
The huemul was first brought to the attention of the wider public in Chile in 1834, when the British painter Charles C Wood Taylor convinced the government that a creature from the largely unexplored Patagonian territory should accompany the condor in his design for the country’s coat of arms. The huemul, “an almost unknown animal”, was chosen. It has been officially protected since 2006, when it was given Chilean natural monument status, and in 2010 Chile and Argentina agreed to jointly conserve the deer.
Today, conservation efforts in Chile are being stepped up. Gustavo Saldivia, founder of the Aumen Foundation, which has been protecting huemul on an 8,500-hectare (32 sq mile) area of public land near Tortel in Chile since 2001, thinks he knows why. “It flutters its eyelashes. It’s sexy,” he says.
The organisation Rewilding Chile is also working to protect huemul by buying areas of wilderness and private grazing land in Patagonia for restoration and conservation projects. In 2018, it gave 400,000 hectares of rewilded land to the country, collaborating with the government to create a Route of Parks, which today connects a patchwork of 17 national parks, extending 1,700 miles over the southern third of Chile.
The Route of Parks has increased connections between disparate huemul sub-populations but ranching, hunting and construction on private land between these parks still pose a threat to the huemul. To address this, Rewilding Chile has created a huemul national corridor.
“The Route of Parks is the spine,” says Rewilding Chile’s wildlife director, Cristián Saucedo, “and now the huemul corridor forms the ribcage.” Restoring the interconnectivity of huemul populations along the length of Patagonia is the ultimate goal, says Saucedo, but first their numbers must be bolstered and threats reduced in the areas they currently occupy.
Since 2020, Saucedo has overseen the purchase of 670 hectares of private land and subsequent livestock fence removal in Las Horquetas valley, connecting it to the 180,000-hectare Cerro Castillo national park to create a key part of the huemul corridor.
“These small contributions of land are very important because, even though they are small, they are key places to protect and connect these [huemul] ‘islands’,” says Rody Álvarez, a Rewilding Chile warden.
Kristine Tompkins, co-founder of Tompkins Conservation, which launched Rewilding Chile in 2021, says: “Respecting wildlife means undoing the damage we’ve done. One way of doing that is by restoring corridors for crucial species, like the huemul, whose time is running out.”
In a study earlier this year, the huemul was named as one of 20 key terrestrial species whose reintroduction could positively affect biodiversity. The lead researcher, Carly Vynne, says: “A focused effort on recovering this species would not only help the species itself but could also help complete assemblages across vast areas [of Patagonia].”
Reconnecting the Patagonian pockets the huemul has been reduced to could help restore the depleted in-between landscapes, the study said. The huemul is the only large mammal missing from many Patagonian ecosystems. Saucedo describes huemul as a “sentinel species”, providing intelligence on how a damaged ecosystem is recovering.
But the huemul continues to face threats, including the climate crisis and a change of land use. It has already been reduced to less than 50% of its original habitat, according to a 2018 research paper, and a further 60% reduction is expected by 2050, largely due to the impact of warmer winters.
“In the last 15 years, the region has been fragmenting very quickly,” says Álvarez. “Landscapes are being divided into lots.” The owners of these properties often break up huemul habitat by putting up fences, often made of barbed wire.
Concerted efforts to preserve the huemul mean that numbers are gradually increasing at Las Horquetas but the species is still in decline, according to the IUCN Red List. Wide-ranging conversations, says Saucedo, are needed between both public and private sectors, and with Argentina, where huemul populations straddle the border, if the huemul is to be saved.
“To rewild huemul, you require cooperation with a long-term perspective and finally the benefits are for the whole of humanity,” says Saucedo.