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Bolivia and Paraguay unite to protect critically endangered guanacos

  • Guanacos (Lama guanicoe) are considered critically endangered in Bolivia and Paraguay. Fewer than 200 exist in Bolivia and as few as 20 in Paraguay.
  • Guanacos in Bolivia and Paraguay are threatened by habitat loss and poaching. They live in the Chaco, a dry-forest ecoregion that’s one of the most heavily deforested areas on the planet.
  • A camera trapping project spearheaded by Bolivian and Paraguayan NGOs uncovered a population of guanacos living in a national park in Paraguay.
  • Meanwhile, across the border in Bolivia, an autonomous indigenous government is in the process of creating a new reserve, which, if established, would create an extensive habitat corridor for guanacos and other Chaco wildlife.

The guanaco (Lama guanicoe), the spindly, wild forebear of the llama, ranges across a broad reach of western and southern South America. While the species as a whole is not considered threatened with extinction, low numbers in Bolivia and Paraguay and continued declines there as its habitat is razed for agriculture cloud its future in both countries. But a proposed protected habitat corridor in Bolivia is giving conservationists hope that guanacos may make it there after all.

While once ranging across a large portion of Bolivia, fewer than 200 guanacos live in Bolivia today, according to the most recent estimates.

“In Bolivia, the guanaco is categorized as being critically endangered, that is, a step from extinction,” said biologist Catalina Rivadeneira, coordinator of the innovation laboratory at Natura Foundation Bolivia. “This is due to the small number of individuals. Researchers performed calculations between 2008 and 2011 and estimated that the guanaco population was below 200 individuals in the entire Bolivian Chaco.”

Researchers estimate fewer than 200 guanacos live in the Bolivian Chaco. Image courtesy of Natura Foundation Bolivia.

The Chaco is an ecoregion of primarily dry forests and savannas shared between Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Rivadeneira said the guanaco was considered extinct in Bolivia’s portion of the Andean plateau, which lies to the west of the country’s Chaco region; however, biologist Ángela Nuñez recorded a few individuals there in 2006. Still, the bulk of Bolivia’s scant guanaco population is found in its Chaco region.

But guanacos may not be found there for much longer. One of the most deforested areas of the planet, the Chaco’s sparse forests are disappearing at a quick clip as land is cleared for for soy plantations and cattle ranges and wildfires started by farmers and fueled by climate change rage out of control.

Across the border in Paraguay, guanacos have been very nearly relegated to memory. According to the IUCN, there may be as few as 20 animals left in the country, which lists the species as critically endangered.

The Bolivian Chaco. Image courtesy of Natura Foundation Bolivia.

María Teresa Vargas, director of Natura Foundation Bolivia, says that the main threat to the guanaco is habitat loss due to agriculture. She adds that poaching has also taken a big toll on populations in Bolivia and Paraguay.

To keep tabs on Paraguay’s sparse population, researchers conducted a monitoring project using camera traps in Médanos de Chaco National Park, which lies right over the Bolivian border. The project is a joint effort between NGOs Guyra Paraguay and Natura Foundation Bolivia.

Thirteen species have been photographed by the project’s camera traps – among them the guanaco.

“This is the first record of the guanaco that we have in the Paraguayan Chaco,” said Viviana Rojas, coordinator of the species conservation program at Guyra Paraguay.

Other species photographed include the jaguar (Panthera onca), giant anteater (Mymecophaga trydactyla), puma (Puma concolor), pampas fox (Lycalopex gymnocercus), Geoffroy’s cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), and collared peccary (Pecari tajacu).

This guanaco is one of very few that are hanging on in Paraguay. Image courtesy of Guyra Paraguay.
A jaguar captured by camera traps in Médanos de Chaco National Park. Photo courtesy of Guyra Paraguay.

Rojas said that monitoring went through the end of 2019, with around 1.5 million images captured.

“The objective of the project is to create an action plan with Bolivia to conserve this species,” she said.

Catalina Rivadeneira, of Natura Foundation Bolivia, said that the camera traps did not photograph any guanacos on the Bolivian side of the park. However, she added that she did see three individuals in an unprotected area there during a separate trip to the region.

This unprotected area may not be unprotected for much longer, however. Together with NGOs, the Guaraní autonomous government has proposed creating a protected area called the Área de Vida del Guajukaka (Spanish and Guaraní for “Area of Life for Guanacos”), which would cover 285,000 hectares (approximately 704,000 acres) within the municipality of Charagua Iyambae.

The Área de Vida del Guajukaka will be the fourth reserve established in the Guaraní autonomous municipality and will be located to the south of Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area. Other reserves in the area include Otuquis National Park and Integrated Management Natural Area and Ñembi Guasu Conservation Area. Together, these four protected areas would form a continuous habitat corridor.

The Área de Vida del Guajukaka and three other protected areas in the municipality of Charagua would form a continuous habitat corridor. Image courtesy of Natura Foundation Bolivia.
Satellite data show large areas of deforestation over the past two decades in the Chaco regions of Bolivia and Paraguay. Last year’s heavy fire season was particularly destructive, but satellite imagery shows agricultural expansion also displaced forest. Conservationists hope the proposed Área de Vida del Guajukaka will help preserve what remains of Bolivia’s Chaco. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch

The project is in its final phase of consultation with the 28 native communities and 76 ranchers that own land inside the proposed reserve, according to Rivadeneira. Ranchers must agree to cede portions of their land to the reserve, and communities must agree to not clear the land once it’s protected.

“We are receiving the actas comunales [records from communal assemblies] in which they indicate if they agree with the proposal,” Rivadeneira told Mongabay.

Vargas says that establishing the Área de Vida del Guajukaka in coordination with communities and private agricultural landowners represents a big step forward for the creation of conservation spaces.

“We are no longer back in the time when protected areas were defined from a desk,” Vargas said. “We want the commitment of all the actors who make up this area.”

José Ávila is responsible for coordination and planning for the autonomous government of Charagua Iyambae. He says the Guaraní people have decided to set aside 70% of their autonomous municipality for conservation, with the other 30% reserved for economic activities.

“The municipality of Charagua in Bolivia still has the best-conserved ecosystem of Chaco forest, as opposed to what is happening in the Paraguayan, Argentinian, and Brazilian Chaco,” Ávila said. “This is why protecting it is important to ensure the conservation of the species.”


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


Banner image courtesy of Natura Foundation Bolivia.

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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