Conservation biologist Stuart Pimm reports from Patagonia near the tip of South America on how dedicated colleagues are re-wilding former sheep ranches. Their vision is to create a Yosemite-size national park that protects temperate grasslands for indigenous animals and plants.
Culpeo fox photograph by Stuart L. Pimm
By Stuart L. Pimm
Special contributor to NatGeo News Watch
Patagonia, Chile–It’s nearly midnight when I arrive, but it’s only just got dark. I look at the sky. Orion is the wrong way up. His “sword,” and the famous nebula it contains, point directly upwards. Although it’s January–high summer–it’s cold.
I savor the novel sensations. I’ve never seen the night sky so alarmingly upside down before.
The scenery we passed on the seven-hour drive was spectacular–and snow-covered. Warm, humid and generally flat forests are my regular haunts in South America.
One reason I’m in such an unfamiliar place is a striking, if prosaic, statistic.
Background: It’s 2010–the International Year of Biodiversity. The nations of the world have committed to protect 10 percent of their land surface as national parks (or similar), under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
According to a recent publication in the journal Biology Conservation from two colleagues, Drs. Clinton Jenkins and Lucas Joppa, the world’s nations have done better than that on average–nearly 13 percent is now under protection of some kind. Devils are in the details.
Some biomes–Earth’s broad kinds of habitats–have done better than others. None has done worse than temperate grasslands. Of the ten million square kilometers this biome covers worldwide–that’s about the size of the U.S. lower 48 states–only 4 percent is protected, and only half of that is well-protected. That’s the statistic.
Put simply, grasslands are in deep trouble.
The main reason I’m in Chile is to meet Kris Tompkins. With her husband Doug, she has protected more land than any other private individual–almost one million hectares (two million acres). Most of that land is temperate grassland.
Next morning, we’re off and head towards the nearby border with Argentina. She stops as we cross a ridge.
It’s not just the distant mountains with a fresh dusting of snow that are lovely. The valley has flowers and lush, tall grass, and, for as far as I can see, herds of guanacos.
Photograph of guanacos in grasslands by Stuart L. Pimm
Kris seems to catch her breath. It’s a sight that could be from an imagined movie — “Pleistocene Park,” let’s call it.
That this scene might have been as fictional as one with dinosaurs in it has everything to do with how humanity uses grasslands.
Generally, we evict the native herbivores and substitute cattle or sheep. “Abuse” would be a better verb. On over two thirds of the world’s drylands–the half of the planet that is too dry for trees–overstocked livestock have massively reduced the land’s productivity.
Kris removed tens of thousands of sheep. The grass came back, covering the large areas of bare earth the sheep’s hooves had created.
The grass was now tall enough to seed out, where it had once been nibbled to within inches of the ground. With the grass, the guanacos can back. And with them, mountain lions. The lakes were thick with swans, geese, ducks, coots–and flamingos with pink knee-caps.
Photograph by Stuart L. Pimm
We drove on, Kris telling us that she’d camped here, then over there, and so on along the valley into the more open grasslands, as we approached Argentina.
Technically, all this was her property. But both she and Doug devote their efforts to creating what will eventually become the Patagonia National Park. As such, it will belong to the people of Chile–and all who want to visit it.
They had founded Conservacion Patagonica, a nonprofit, to establish a “world-class national park” that would span the land between two huge lakes, Lago General Carrera and Lago Cochrane. It would be nearly as large as Yosemite in California.
I asked Kris: “Why here? What makes you so passionate about this place?”
In this video Stuart Pimm talks to Kris Tompkins, who with her husband Doug, has acquired and re-wilded almost one million hectares (two million acres) of former sheep ranches in Chile. Their hope is to create a Yosemite-size national park that protects Patagonia’s grassland animals and plants.
Video by Stuart L. Pimm
“People protect the places that they love and to love it you have to identify with it. Big, open wild, unpopulated Patagonia has always appealed to me greatly,” Kris said.
“Once you get involved in protecting something that means so much to you, your relationship with that place changes forever–in ways that are unspeakable, un-describable, really. I feel very fortunate to be doing this.
“What do you hope to accomplish,” I continued.
“The re-wilding of the Patagonia region. To bring some balance between human use, landscapes, and habitats that are fully flourishing. That requires all the inhabitants of that landscape to be intact and evolving in their natural way–which today they are not. All those things are possible to restore, if you work fast and work smart.”
Photograph by Stuart L. Pimm
What do you think people will think of you and Doug a hundred years from now?
“I hope people will say they loved wild things. Wild nature. And they gave it a shot to bring that into its rightful place. That they brought the human and non-human world if not into harmony, but into at least a truce. And that we participated in that effort.
“I want to leave a legacy that we loved land.”
Photograph of Patagonia Mountains by Stuart L. Pimm
Professor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”