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A national park takes shape in Argentina as the forest disappears

  • Officially established in October 2014, Argentina’s Impenetrable National Park partially opened to the public in early 2018.
  • The park is home to an estimated 600 species of vertebrates including jaguars and giant anteaters. Conservation organizations and Argentina’s National Parks Administration are planning on reintroducing marsh deer to the park, which have been driven to local extinction in most of their Argentinian range.
  • Impenetrable National Park is located in the largely semiarid Gran Chaco ecoregion. The Chaco is one of the most deforested areas on the planet, losing more than 2.9 million hectares (7.2 million acres) of its forest between 2010 and 2018. Argentina is home to 60% of the Chaco – but it’s the site of 80% of Chaco deforestation as farmers clear more and more land for cattle and soy.
  • Park officials say hunting is also taking a toll on wildlife, and satellite imagery reveals wildfire burned through more than 1,000 hectares of park forest in late 2019.

Two Darwin’s rheas (Rhea pennata) run at full speed between the thorny bushes and tall grasslands that cover the paleobasin – an ancient river basin and floodplain near the Bermejo River in Argentina. The rheas stop in unison for a few seconds, as if expecting the driver of the SUV to leave their territory. Then they turn to their right and disappear into the thicket.

The sun beats down mercilessly on Impenetrable National Park in the far north of Argentina as the morning wears on, and before long the thermometer reads 41 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit). At this time the Darwin’s rheas are the only ones who dare to challenge the heat. Even though the temperature is not at its max – in the middle of summer, temperatures can exceed 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit) – it’s enough to overwhelm visitors from the climate-controlled city. The tereré (cold tea) guide Gabriel Borsini serves from the passenger seat helps to quench our thirst: “The heat in this area is deceitful,” he says from experience, “it’s dry and although we don’t notice our perspiration, you can quickly become dehydrated.”

“Impenetrable” is the historical name given to the vast arid and semi-arid portion of the Gran Chaco, which occupies about 20% of Argentina’s land area. It was given that name for two reasons: its dense undergrowth and its scarcity of water. When the country’s National Parks Administration claimed ownership of an area of former farmland to transform it into a protected area in 2014, the local authorities decided to give it the same name. The park’s 130,000 hectares lie within in a strip of land that runs between the Teuco/Bermejo and Bermejito rivers where semi-arid and humid portions of the Chaco converge.

Aerial view of the Bermejo River, which borders Impenetrable National Park and the provinces of Chaco and Formosa. Photo courtesy of Argentina’s National Parks Administration.

From the moment of its creation, Impenetrable National Park has been at the center of debate. Scientific interest and conservation efforts face off against tourism and economic expectations as the park slowly establishes. The expansion of the agricultural frontier that’s threatening so much of the Gran Chaco is no stranger to the area, with ranches encroaching ever-closer to the park and the wildlife that lives within.

A park still in development

A silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) surprises us along a curve of the only road open to the public in the park. A small forest of itines (Prozopis kentzei, a South American leguminous tree species) offers a shaded refuge, and then carob shrubs and white and red hardwood trees called “quebrachos” come into view. The arid plain gives way to forest.

The silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa) is one of the tree species found in the Gran Chaco. Photo by Rodolfo Chisleanschi.

In the 1970s, siblings Luis and Manuel Roseo bought the property from the wealthy Born family. In 1984 Luis died, and Manuel didn’t have enough money to launch the large agricultural enterprise they were planning. The land fell fallow and the passage of time restored many of the parts that had been farmed.

But unaided, the land’s recovery could only go so far. Away from prying eyes, poachers hunted on the land, loggers cut down its trees and ranchers let their cattle browse its slow-growing vegetation.

The future of the property changed abruptly at dawn on Jan, 13, 2011. Three men broke in Manuel Roseo’s home 100 kilometers (60 miles) away in Juan José Castelli, tortured him, and killed him. They allegedly did so after failing to fraudulently purchase his property. Roseo’s heirs agreed to turn the land over to the National Parks Administration; the transaction was financed by the Conservation Land Trust and the Wyss Foundation.

Entrance to Impenetrable National Park. Photo by Rodolfo Chisleanschi.

Officially established in October 2014, Impenetrable National Park partially opened to the public in early 2018. Fenceposts jut out from the soil like alien sentries, reminders of what the land once was. There is still work to be done.

“We are slowly removing them; it will take some time,” says Gabriel Borsini, a park ranger who is spending the final leg of his career in the park.

“In parallel, we are working to assemble basic control and surveillance structures and build the capacity of public use areas,” says Leonardo Juber, head of the park. Currently, there is only one entry point to the park. Basic infrastructure is missing, such as housing so that park rangers can live permanently inside the park and guard posts along the Bermejo River. Nor is there any type of service available for those wishing to visit the park. Existing trails are limited in extent and are not open during the unstaffed rainy season. Still, Impenetrable National Park attracts more and more visitors every year.

“Regarding the flora and fauna, the area has almost everything a protected area should have in the region,” Juber says. “The Impenetrable may not have large postcard attractions such as the Iguazu Falls or the Perito Moreno Glacier, but it has other attractions, such as bird watching [and other things of] scientific interest.”

A home for many species

Despite its aridity, the Chaco has high levels of biodiversity. Impenetrable National Park exemplifies this.  “We have cataloged more than 500 species of vertebrates and we expect we will exceed 600 when we complete the bat surveys,” says Gerardo Cerón, biologist in charge of El Teuco field station which is owned by The Conservation Land Trust and located on the shores of Breal Lake.

The park’s biodiversity shines at dusk, when cooler temperatures entice animals to emerge. Black-crowned night-herons and jabirus fly over the water; tapirs, giant armadillos, anteaters, red brocket deer, monkeys and peccaries forage; puma, maned wolves and foxes hunt. Wildlife is concentrated around the lakes fed by the Bermejo River: Breal, Corrales, Pozo del Yacaré, and the distant Zorro Bay. Conservationists and scientists plan to reintroduce marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus) to the park soon. South America’s largest deer species, the marsh deer was driven to local extinction in much its historic range by habitat loss and poaching for its antlers; it’s listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

A white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) takes a refreshing dip in water and mud in Impenetrable National Park. Photo courtesy of Argentina’s National Parks Administration.
The Chacoan mara (Dolichotis salinicola) is one of the most abundant rodents in the area. It looks like a rabbit and lives in small caves. Photo courtesy of the National Parks Administration.
Anteater in Impenetrable National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Parks Administration.

Impenetrable National Park is also home to South America’s largest predator: the jaguar (Panthera onca). In Sep. 2018, a Conservation Land Trust camera trap snapped images of an individual whose presence in the area had been followed for months by researchers affiliated with the park and with the Yaguareté Project, which aims to conserve Chaco jaguar populations.

“It was a huge relief to see that the park is an important area for the species; we want to believe that it sees the park as a quiet place without disturbances,” said biologist Verónica Quiroga, a research specialist with the Yaguareté Project.

Researchers say that this particular jaguar was born in the Ibera region of Argentina and had traveled some 500 miles.

“Its presence reveals that there are still areas for biodiversity development in the Chaco,” said Luciano Olivares, deputy secretary of the Natural Resources Department of Chaco province.

A couple weeks later, the jaguar was captured and fitted with a satellite collar to allow researchers to follow its movements, and re-released in Impenetrable National Park.

“Thanks to that collar we know that he stayed in an area of 5 to 6 square kilometers and that he did not cross the river again,” Cerón said.

Image of a jaguar pawprint taken Aug. 31, 2019. Photo by Verónica Quiroga.

But if it does cross the Bermajo River, conservationists warn that its future may be in jeopardy.

“It is a private property in succession,” Franco Del Rosso says of the 100,000 hectares the lies on the other side of the river from the park. Del Rosso is the coordinator of the Biodiversity, Protected Areas and Climate Change Program in the province of Formosa. “The Ministry of Production and Natural Resources promotes the creation of a private reserve [on this land]. We understand that a large part of the farm is already sold but cannot be notarized,” he said.

Hunting, farming and isolation 

The Gran Chaco is one of the most deforested areas on the planet, with an area the size of Buenos Aires disappearing every day. Argentina is home to 60% of the Chao – but it’s the site of 80% of Chaco deforestation as farmers clear more and more land for cattle and soy.

Impenetrable National Park’s official protected status means its relatively safe from agricultural expansion. But the surrounding areas are not. Satellite images show much of the land surrounding the park has already been cleared, with large areas of new deforestation appearing less than two miles (3.2 kilometers) from the park in 2019. Satellite imagery also show fire claimed more than 1,000 hectares of forest within the park between October and December.

Satellite imagery and data show several areas of forest loss in and near Impenetrable National Park over the past year. Data source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch; imagery from Planet Labs.
Satellite imagery of the largest area of recent deforestation near Impenetrable National Park (inset A on the map above), where around 5,000 hectares was cleared in the last half of 2019. Source: Planet Labs.
Satellite imagery shows more than 1,000 hectares were burned in the park in the last few months of 2019. Source: Planet Labs.

Deforestation also serves to isolate, fragmenting remaining habitat into islands separated by oceans of farmland. To combat this, conservation organizations are trying to knit together protected areas into habitat corridors so that wildlife populations can mingle with others of their kind and access food and water.

“We are in the implementation phase of the humid Chaco corridor, which is born in the Chaco National Park and covers all the interfluve between the Bermejo and the Bermejito rivers,” says Paula Soneira, coordinator of the Gran Chaco corridor program.

“Many of the species that inhabit the ecoregion require large tracts of land to survive,” says biologist Micaela Camino, a member of the Somos Monte conservation organization. “For example, each group of white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari) needs 11,000 to 12,000 hectares to move. If you don’t manage the buffer zones around the park, it will be converted into an island ecosystem and our conservation efforts become less effective.”

Park officials say hunting is also taking a toll on wildlife in and around Impenetrable National Park.

“It is a cultural activity, it is not even for subsistence,” said Leonardo Juber. “The hunters usually enter from the Formosa river bank and hunt for pleasure, without any commercial desire.”

“They are people who shoot anything that moves,” adds biologist Gerardo Cerón.

However, officials say enforcement of hunting laws has gotten a boost since jaguars were detected in the park.

“Having the presence of the jaguar in the national park makes us have stricter hunting control,” Luciano Olivares said.

As for the problem of deforestation, Olivares recommends a holistic approach.

“We should integrate dispersed efforts, be much more meticulous and efficient in managing the expansion of the agricultural and livestock frontiers,” he said, “and promote a change in consciousness: production, biodiversity, how the environment and man have to live together.”


This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first published in Spanish on November 29, 2019.


Banner image: Armadillo. Photo: © Yawar Films

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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