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In Chile, drought and human expansion threaten a unique national park

  • La Campana National Park in Chile is home to threatened species of plants and animals, many found nowhere else.
  • The region has been suffering a 12-year drought, and in spite of rains this year, experts say it’s too early to say whether the climate trend has been reversed.
  • The park also faces pressure from expanding farmland and urbanization, including the conversion of native vegetation to fruit monocultures, and the encroachment of domestic animals that can spread disease to wildlife.

La Campana National Park, located in Chile’s Valparaíso region, is considered a jewel. It’s a biodiversity oasis in one of the most densely populated areas of the country. Inside the park live plant species from the north, central and even south of Chile, although the latter are accustomed to higher humidity than this area provides.

“Coastal clouds clash with La Campana hill and produce a microclimate that brings more humidity and allows for more abundant vegetation,” a park ranger says.

The national park is also the core zone of a biosphere reserve and main habitat of the Chilean palm (Jubaea chilensis), a critically endangered plant found nowhere else in the world.

The importance of this protected area is also reflected in the fact that it hosts a range of threatened animal species, including foxes like the culpeo (Lycalopex culpaeus) and South American gray fox (Lycalopex griseus), and cats like the puma (Puma concolor), kodkod (Leopardus guigna) and pampas cat (Leopardus colocola).

But a drought that has persisted over the past decade, combined with the expansion of urban and agricultural areas, are putting increasing pressure on the park.

The Chilean palm is critically endangered

“In the last 200 years, 98% of Chilean palms disappeared due to honey production,” says Paloma Bravo, a geographer and regional head of monitoring and development at CONAF, the Chilean forestry agency. For a long time, she says, these trees were felled to extract their sap and produce palm syrup, also known as palm honey.

In 2000, the species was declared vulnerable by Chilean authorities, and its logging was banned. Its status continued to decline, however, and in 2020 the Ministry of the Environment deemed it critically endangered. (The IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, puts the Chilean palm in the less dire category of endangered on its Red List.)

Chilean palms at La Campana National Park. Image courtesy of CONAF.

It takes at least 70 years for a Chilean palm to reach adulthood and start producing seeds. This slow growth is a factor in the species’ vulnerability because it “needs to live through many threats to reach adulthood and be able to reproduce,” Bravo says. Another problem is that the production of new palms has diminished drastically due mainly to the limited availability of seeds and the fact that cattle and rabbits eat the small saplings.

The 2020 study that provided the scientific evidence to classify the Chilean palm as critically endangered showed that for each adult palm, there’s one palm being regenerated. “What’s tragic is that each adult palm produces approximately 1,200 seeds, which means that, in absolute terms, there should be 1,200 new palms for each adult palm, and there’s only one,” Bravo says.

Chilean palm seeds “are like the coconuts that tropical palms grow, but in miniature version,” she adds. And these seeds are highly sought-after in the local market and, particularly, the Asian market. In 2016, Chile exported 1 metric ton of seeds; the following year, it exported 116 metric tons, Bravo says.

La Campana National Park. Image courtesy of CONAF.

Collecting palm seed inside La Campana National Park was banned in 2017, but it’s allowed outside the protected area. This means the practice continues, and is well rooted in the campesino traditions of this part of central Chile.

“Unfortunately, outside [the park] seed extraction is still happening and we aren’t able to influence Chilean legislation to ban it,” Bravo says. “We are working on it.”

Illegal seed collection also takes place inside the part, says ranger Cipriano Núñez. “It is difficult to oversee because there are many unregulated access points into the park,” he adds. Bravo concurs that the illegal activity occurs, but says she’s optimistic it will decrease with time thanks to environmental education and citizen participation activities.

A drought that causes devastation

In 2022, the rains finally returned to central Chile. Much of the country had been in the grip of a drought for the past 12 years, which affected the native vegetation, killing off even those species that had adapted to survive in dry environments.

“This year was almost normal” in terms of rain, Bravo says, and the vegetation has recovered. However, she says it’s too early to tell whether the dry spell that lasted for more than a decade has been reversed.

“The Chilean acorn [Cryptocarya alba] was impacted, the soapbark tree [Quillaja saponaria], [trees at] the bottom of the ravines, the palo santo trees [Weinmannia trichosperma] are getting dry, [also the] lingue tree [Persea lingue],” Núñez says. “We then have a severe landscape transformation impacting the entire ecosystem dynamic.”

As for Chilean palms, “we have identified some of them have lost their leaves,” Bravo says. And although there aren’t any scientific studies directly attributing this to the drought, local and park ranger knowledge indicates that this is the reason. The problem, Bravo says, is that when the plant loses its leaves, it inevitably dies.

The impact on the park’s vegetation is noticeable in satellite images processed by the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso’s Geo-Information and Remote Perception Laboratory.

The satellite images, taken approximately every 28 days, allow researchers to look back and compare the current state of the vegetation cover with that from 20 years ago. That allows researchers to issue drought alerts for the protected area.

Dryness alerts issued in September 2021 compared to the vegetation cover 20 years ago.
Dryness alerts issued in September 2020 compared to the vegetation cover 20 years ago.
Dryness alerts issued in September 2022 compared to the vegetation cover 20 years ago.

At the same time, Bravo says, it’s also possible to see on Google Earth how the vegetation cover has become notably greener around the park. This green, however, isn’t associated with native vegetation recovery, she says, but to the replacement of local species with avocado and citrus monocultures. “Where there used to be xerophyte [dry-adapted] species, adapted to a climate with low water availability, there is this vegetation that has a big water demand, so the drought has accelerated,” Bravo says.

Together with agricultural expansion, the growing urbanization around the park is another threat to the protected area.

“La Campana National Park has a degree of pressure linked to population growth both regular and irregular, that is, invasions,” says Christian Díaz, the CONAF head for the province of Quillota, where the park is located.

That pressure, Díaz says, translates into bigger risk of forest fires, particularly given the prevailing dry conditions. This natural refuge, located in the middle of one of the most densely populated regions of Chile, is increasingly becoming an island that restricts the freedom of movement of the species that live there.

The threatened animals

Since 2017, rangers have monitored La Campana with the help of camera traps installed at 60 strategic points. Thanks to these tools that spy on the animals in their natural environment, photographing them whenever they detect movement, CONAF has confirmed the presence of several species thought to be at risk.

A pampas cat captured on camera trap. Image courtesy of La Campana National Park.

“The newest thing we’ve found is the presence of pampas cats,” Núñez says. The species is classified as near threatened on the IUCN Red List. “It was a great joy because neither the long-standing rangers nor we had been lucky enough to detect it.”

Núñez, who is also in charge of monitoring objects for biological conservation inside the protected area, says the second key finding was the detection of kodkods, a wild cat classified as vulnerable.

In addition, the park is also the habitat of two foxes, the culpeo and the South American gray fox, as well as the Andes skunk (Conepatus chinga) and the puma. The camera traps haven’t captured the latter two species, but Núñez says he’s hopeful of recording them one day because “a colleague believes that a couple of years ago he detected puma footprints precisely while installing camera traps.”

Image of a South American gray fox captured on camera trap. Image courtesy of La Campana National Park.

Diego Valencia, CONAF’s national leader for monitoring, says the main threat to the pampas cat and most small wild cats in general is habitat fragmentation — and this is precisely what the cats of La Campana face.

“There are many territories that are being prepared for building houses,” Núñez says. “That implies that, one way or another, the native forest is cleared to install a house, fences are built, and native animals lose territory.”

Valencia calls it “a carnivore-human conflict: the cat gets into the poultry house and is seen as an opportunistic species that damages farmer revenues,” which then prompts farmers to retaliate by attacking the cats.

Urbanization has also brought other problems like the arrival of dogs that can get into the park and transmit diseases to the wildlife. “In fact, in 2018 we were really worried because there were images that showed ill foxes with skin problems,” Núñez says.

Image of a grison captured on camera trap. Image courtesy of La Campana National Park.

Camera traps have also recorded and quantified the presence of domestic dogs and cats, along with horses and cattle, which pose a threat to protected plant species. In 2020, an analysis of the camera traps installed in the park identified the presence of 30 individual dogs. “We were able to detect that they arrive at around 8 in the morning and stay until 5 in the evening,” Valencia says. What this means is that these dogs have owners, he says: “They set them free, they walk around the park, and then go back home to sleep.”

Valencia says the park’s small carnivores, like the pampas cat and the kodkod, are highly adaptable animals, but that as they animals find themselves increasingly closed in by creeping urbanization, “they will, of course, start to be isolated in increasingly smaller portions [of territory]” and “are in danger of falling into deadly traps.”

While the camera-trap monitoring is aimed at collecting scientific information to inform effective conservation strategies, the truth is that “it’s been difficult to establish concrete actions” in La Campana National Park, Núñez says. “It’s a pending challenge because unfortunately it isn’t something that depends entirely on us,” he says.

According to experts, in the particular case of the Chilean palm, new rules are necessary to preserve the species. But also, Núñez says, “we need to discuss with other organizations like the Agricultural and Livestock Service and the municipal authorities” to tackle challenges like urban expansion and incursions by domestic animals.

Banner image of a culpeo fox in La Campana National Park, courtesy of CONAF.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Oct. 10, 2022.

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