- Endemic to Chile and Argentina, the huemul deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus) is an endangered species, threatened by habitat loss, poaching, diseases and climate change.
- With only about 1,500 individuals still left in the wild, the huemul population has been reduced to only a small fraction (as little as 1%) of what it once was.
- In Chile, the National Huemul Corridor is a recently launched project that aims to save the species by reducing threats to its survival and restoring areas of its natural habitat.
- The species could act as a flagship for recovering the natural habitats for a range of other species, according to conservation organization Rewilding Chile.
Standing beside the Andean condor on Chile’s coat of arms is the huemul deer. The species, whose habitat stretches from central Chile all the way south to the tip of Patagonia, has declined dramatically over the last two centuries. But in Chile, a recently launched public-private project, the National Huemul Corridor, aims to boost the iconic deer’s population and push for large-scale ecosystem restoration.
The corridor project is a collaboration between Rewilding Chile Foundation, Chile’s Ministry of Agriculture, the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) and the National Agricultural and Livestock Service. The aim is to connect huemul habitats within the country’s Route of the Parks. Spanning more than 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) across Patagonia, the route crosses 17 national parks and protects more than 11 million hectares (27 million acres) of land.
The ultimate goal, says Cristián Sáucedo, wildlife director of Rewilding Chile, is to restore the species (Hippocamelus bisulcus) to its original population, or as close to it is as possible. “It’s a long-term mission and the only way to get there is with this collaborative approach,” he told Mongabay in a video call.
There are still plenty of steps before connecting different huemul populations, Sáucedo explains. These include a better understanding of the species through monitoring existing subpopulations, controlling threats in order to protect key groups of huemul, and even active management, such as translocating animals elsewhere.
“We are not talking about a single line that goes from up north to the south,” Sáucedo said. “First, we need to focus on protected areas that we have identified as important for the huemul, so that we can first secure them. We understand these areas are critical because they are the main refuge for the species.”
To that end, the project includes building a dedicated huemul rescue and rehabilitation center — the first of its kind in Chile — in the Aysén region, close to Cerro Castillo National Park. Conservation NGO Tompkins Conservation, the parent organization of Rewilding Chile, also announced the donation of 230,000 acres (around 93,000 hectares) of land in Cape Froward, Patagonia, that will become a national park in support of huemul conservation, covering the southern side of the species’ habitat.
Decline of an icon
Though a national icon, the huemul deer has faced a steep decline to the point that it is now considered one of the world’s most threatened deer species. Its population has fallen to less than 1% of its historic numbers and is scattered across more than 100 subpopulations. Fewer than 1,500 individuals are thought to be present in the wild.
The huemul faces a host of threats, conservationists say, with habitat loss, poaching, disease brought on by livestock and an influx of invasive species among the main drivers of its decline. Across its fragmented populations, these threats continue to persist and may be compounded by the potential impact of climate change. Research suggests that species mismanagement in Chile may have also played a role in the dwindling of huemul populations. In that case, the removal of sheep to turn a former ranch into a conservation area appears to have turned huemuls into the main prey for pumas and foxes, further decimating the species.
Jo Anne Smith-Flueck, director of research at the Shoonem Foundation, which works to preserve Argentina’s Chubut River Basin and focuses on huemul conservation, underlines that conservation efforts will succeed only if the threats are thoroughly addressed.
According to her research, current huemul populations are akin to “refugees” on isolated patches in the mountains “where minerals are deficient in the soil, and thus deficient in the huemul’s diet,” she wrote in an email to Mongabay. In the past, the species’ migratory patterns meant some would move from lower altitudes in winter to higher mountain slopes in the summer. Losing them poses a considerable challenge, she told Mongabay.
“The truth is, they are stuck in the upper deciduous Nothofagus [southern beech] forests where they remain all year, in a habitat that was once only their summer range,” Smith-Flueck wrote. Her team says this can lead to nutritional and health problems, likely making them more susceptible to diseases, an already recognized threat.
She supports the National Corridor initiative, but says she believes for it to reach its goals, all existing threats should be considered and addressed as much as possible. “The bottom line is that correcting for mineral deficiencies needs to be an important objective in all huemul conservation programs,” she wrote. Her organization is also working to develop a transnational corridor that would connect huemul populations in Chile and Argentina.
Conserving deer for greater impact
Besides recovering huemul populations, Rewilding Chile aims to use the species as a flagship for broader rewilding efforts. A study published last year identified the species’ recovery as key to ecosystem restoration. Further protecting and restoring the huemul’s habitat could benefit other species such as the Andean condor (Vulture gryphus), another icon of Chile, Sáucedo said.
Cristóbal Briceño, a veterinarian at the University of Chile, said he believes the public-private approach could be beneficial. He pointed to past success in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park that saw huemul populations recover; however, in that case, the species still remains threatened by diseases.
According to Briceño, any interventions should be firmly backed by science. “In order to see how these initiatives work, I would expect this is going to include studies of abundance to see whether these corridors are working, whether huemul are moving or coming back,” he told Mongabay.
Sáucedo acknowledged that the task ahead was large, but he said he believed that multiple organizations working toward the same goal across a large landscape could succeed. “For us, it’s really crucial to advance the huemul recovery as a symbol of rewilding,” Sáucedo said. “We need it as a strategic species [for the] rewilding program that we are running in Patagonia and that we would like to promote in Chile.”
Berger, J., Wangchuk, T., Briceño, C., Vila, A., & Lambert, J. E. (2020). Disassembled Food Webs and Messy Projections: Modern Ungulate Communities in the Face of Unabating Human Population Growth. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2020.00128/full
Vila, A., Briceño, C., McAloose, D., Seimon, T. A., Armién, A. G., Mauldin, E. A., … Uhart, M. M. (2019). Putative parapoxvirus-associated foot disease in the endangered huemul deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus) in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, Chile. PLOS ONE. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0213667
Riquelme, C., Estay, S. A., Contreras, R., & Corti, P. (n.d.). Extinction risk assessment of a Patagonian ungulate using population dynamics models under climate change scenarios. International Journal of Biometeorology. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00484-020-01971-4
Wittmer, H. U., Elbroch, L. M., & Marshall, A. J. (2013). Good intentions gone wrong: did conservation management threaten Endangered huemul deer Hippocamelus bisulcus in the future Patagonia National Park? Oryx. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/oryx/article/good-intentions-gone-wrong-did-conservation-management-threaten-endangered-huemul-deer-hippocamelus-bisulcus-in-the-future-patagonia-national-park/2482CEFAFC78F7265427F110AFECFC56
Flueck, W. T., M. Smith-Flueck, J. A., Escobar, M. E., Zuliani, M., Fuchs, B., Geist, V., … Jiménez, J. E. (2022). Loss of Migratory Traditions Makes the Endangered Patagonian Huemul Deer a Year-Round Refugee in Its Summer Habitat. Conservation. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2673-7159/2/2/23
Flueck, W. T. (2020). Nutrition as an etiological factor causing diseases in endangered huemul deer. BMC Research Notes. Retrieved from https://bmcresnotes.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13104-020-05122-1
Vynne, C., Gosling, J., Maney, C., Dinerstein, E., L. Lee, A. T., Burgess, N. D., … Svenning, J. (2022). An ecoregion-based approach to restoring the world’s intact large mammal assemblages. Ecography. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ecog.06098
Banner image: The huemul is a national icon of Chile, appearing on the country’s coat of arms. Today, it is estimated that fewer than 1,500 remain in the wild in Chile and Argentina, the only countries that still host the species. Image courtesy of Cristián Sáucedo/Rewilding Chile.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.