By Steven E. Sanderson
Santiago, Chile, April 19, 2012
Travel to Chile. Upon arriving, head to southern Patagonia, near the tip of South America. Cross the Magellan Strait.
Arrive on the island of Tierra del Fuego, latitude 54 degrees south. Watch for the dusky dolphin and sea lions welcoming you from below and the albatross, kelp gulls, petrels and cormorants overhead. Travel the grasslands, heading south. Pass the southernmost Chilean flamingos in the world, living alongside king penguins, culpeo fox and guanaco.
You know you have arrived when the grasslands turn into old-growth forest and the lower Andean range towers. One dirt road will lead you to its southern border on Admiralty Sound, a waterway to the end of human-occupied Earth, as fjords and glaciers bear witness both to ancient time and contemporary climate change.
It is distant and isolated. You are now exploring one of the greatest wild places left on Earth.
It is your last stop before Antarctica. It is where terrestrial life ends. Adventurists, attracted to the call of the South Pole, have passed by Karukinka, leaving it still a place to be explored for the first time.
In 2004, the Wildlife Conservation Society was given this land by Goldman, Sachs & Co., along with a commitment to conserve it. The reserve is a bit larger than Rhode Island, about 50 times the size of Manhattan. Traveling through, it becomes clear that no one person or entity can truly own this vast land and seascape that has been both bruised and cherished by humankind for 8,000 years. This place belongs to the Chilean people, who have inherited it from some of the earlest inhabitants of the Americas. As an organization, we are stewards charged with its protection, in partnership with government and Chileans from all sectors of civil society. It is simply our turn to ensure the timeless legacy of place.
These past two weeks, I traveled to Karukinka with a team of Chilean business representatives to see how together we can preserve this landscape and make it sustainable for generations to come. We climbed Cerro Pietro Grande in sunshine, rain, snow and sleet, witnessing at the windblown top the kaleidoscope of nature’s fall colors across the grasslands, peat bogs and mountains. We were stuck on the snowy southern Andean Range, as our vehicle failed to overcome 8 inches of new snow. Before we were retrieved off the mountain by four-wheel drive trucks, we stood in wonder beneath condors gliding easily over the pass that had defeated us. Finally, we traversed Admiralty Sound amidst sea lions, leopard seals, penguins and albatross.
Together, our group was alone in our journey. Only a few dozen travelers come here each year. More should come, prepared and hardy, to explore forest and bogs that store hundreds of millions of tons of carbon; to see first-hand the damage caused by invasive beavers that affect as much as 18 million acres of forest; but also to marvel at Karukinka’s stunning wildlife including the largest population of protected guanacos in Chile and the dramatic Magellanic woodpecker, relative of the Ivory-bill; and more.
All the world has a collective responsibility to preserve Karukinka and we welcome new and returning witnesses who will admire this unique place and help us create a culture of protection for Karukinka and the communities around it.
Dr. Steven E. Sanderson is President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society.