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SANTIAGO, May 23 2002 (IPS) - The rare “huemul” or south Andean deer, which is featured alongside the condor on Chile’s national coat-of- arms, is in danger of disappearing from the central part of the country, where it has lived since ancient times.
Environmentalists warn that within ten years, it will only be found in the southern region of this long, narrow Andean nation, and in a few areas of neighbouring Argentina.
The habitat of the highly endangered huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus) is gradually being destroyed, biologist Victoria Maldonado told IPS.
In 1975, there were an estimated 150 huemuls in the area stretching from the Ñuble River to Lake Laja, between 400 and 600 kms south of Santiago. That number had plunged to 60 by 1997, and to a mere 40 today.
At a meeting this month in the city of Chillán, 403 kms south of the capital, 50 experts from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, the United States and Uruguay issued an urgent call for international aid to save the species.
The word huemul comes from the language of the Mapuche indigenous people, who are native to Chile and Argentina, as is the deer itself. In 1883, the huemul was added to the Chilean coat- of-arms. Just over a century later, in 1993, the species was declared in danger of extinction.
The experts meeting in Chillán reported that the total population of huemuls in Argentina and Chile currently numbers between 1,500 and 2,000.
They warned that within the next two or three decades, the deer could also disappear from the central Argentine provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro.
Only in national parks and nature reserves has the species shown any signs of recuperation, U.S. biologist Anthony Povilitis reported at the gathering.
But the figures provided at the meeting in Chillán do not jibe with the statistics of the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), a government agency, which estimates the population of huemuls in the Bernardo O’Higgins national park, at the extreme southern tip of Chile, alone at 6,000.
The glaring imbalance between the estimates is due to the lack of studies to determine the size and status of the population of the species. Such research has not even been carried out in the 3.5 million-hectare Bernardo O’Higgins park, which according to CONAF is home to Chile’s largest population of huemuls.
This month, CONAF and the Zoological Acclimatisation Centre, in the southern Chilean region of Magallanes, signed an agreement for the conservation of the park’s huemul population, to entail an initial investment of 300,000 dollars.
The investment will fund research on the huemul’s characteristics, behaviour, social organisation, and interaction with other species, said CONAF regional director Marco Cordero.
But preventing the elusive huemul from vanishing from the central part of Chile will demand a much larger investment, of at least five million dollars, to create a reserve between the Ñuble River and Lake Laja, experts said at the Chillán meeting.
“Where to obtain those funds is the million-dollar question,” said Maldonado, coordinator of the Biodiversity Programme of the National Committee for the Defence of Flora and Fauna (CODEFF), the oldest environmental organisation in this Southern Cone country.
With the support of the Zoological Society of Frankfurt, Germany, CODEFF purchased 7,500 hectares near Chillán, where it created a natural sanctuary for the protection of the huemul. It also secured a commitment from logging companies to preserve another 10,000 hectares in the area.
CODEFF is working with CONAF and other institutions to create a “biological corridor” running from the snow-capped mountain of Chillán to Lake Laja.
“But that is not enough. A greater commitment is needed from the state, logging companies and tourism outfits, and the importance of a species that appears on our national coat-of-arms must also be clear in the development plans of municipal governments,” said the biologist.
“This is the responsibility of the public and private sectors and of the community as a whole, not only of the areas inhabited by the huemul, but of all of Chile. A national plan is needed,” she stressed.
When the Spanish conquistadors reached what today is Chile in the 16th century, huemuls could be found from the area around the city of Rancagua, some 100 kms south of Santiago, to Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America.
The huemul, which weighs 45-65 kgs, lives at higher altitudes in the summer, moving down the mountains in the fall to spend the winter in forested valleys.
The emergence of towns and farms posed the first threat to the timid huemul, which in 1800 also began to suffer the impact of the introduction of the red deer (Cervus elaphus) and the fallow deer (Cervus dama dama), which today inhabit the regions of Araucanía and Los Lagos, between 600 and 1,000 kms south of Santiago.
Free-ranging livestock also competed for habitat, while introducing illnesses that were transmitted to the huemul, and the domestic dogs that guarded the herds also became the deer’s enemies, Maldonado told IPS.
In the central part of Chile, the huemul’s habitat has been destroyed by the continuous expansion of the agricultural frontier, the construction of roads, the laying in of power lines, and the replacement of native forests by tree species planted by logging companies, she added.
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