Conserving Chile and Argentina’s wild spaces
I first came across the phenomenon of Doug Tompkins 20 years ago, when I visited Pumalín Park in southern Chile. Since establishing his Foundation for Deep Ecology (FDE) in 1990 and The Conservation Land Trust (CLT) in 1992 – both under the wing of umbrella organisation Tompkins Conservation – the co-founder of North Face has done an enormous amount for the protection of wildlife and wild spaces in Chile and Argentina.
Soon after FDE was launched, Doug bought a huge tract of land in southern Chile and turned it into Pumalín Park, an area protecting, in particular, the alerce tree that was so threatened by commercial loggers. This plant can live for 3,000 years, making it the second oldest tree species. In doing so, he crossed swords with both government and commercial interests – here was an outsider buying up land and making it into his own conservation fiefdom. From settling a new Zionist state to introducing the American bison to South America, the reasons for opposing Pumalín (and Tompkins) were varied and usually wildly inaccurate.
Doug was famously combative, but his fundamental belief was in the importance of national parks as a civil right for all to enjoy. That conviction was verbalised – with the help of his wife Kristine’s soft and diplomatic skills – into a ‘contract’ with the Chilean (and later Argentinian) governments, which paved the way to a visionary policy that is now bearing fruit. Tragically, Doug passed away in a kayaking accident in 2015, but Kristine continues the work they started together. In April 2019, both Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park and Patagonia National Park, created by Tompkins Conservation, were handed over to the state of Chile. Iberá National Park was founded in 2018, alongside a larger provincial park of the same name.
Pumalín is one of the wildest places on earth, so appeals to the more adventurous traveller. Fjords with frolicking dolphins, perfect for sea kayaks, feed into untouched, temperate rainforest and a network of trails crisscross the 400,000 hectares of wilderness under conservation management. There are comfortable cabins in which to stay (and campsites for the more intrepid, which ties in with Tompkins’ dream of access for all), but it lacks the luxury lodges of the more famous Torres del Paine National Park further south.
Its annual rainfall of 6000mm per year also makes is challenging, but that is why its habitat is so special and its biodiversity so important. Combined with a stay on the mysterious island of Chiloé, with its extraordinary culture and legend, this is southern Chile at its most extraordinary. It makes for a trip much less well trodden than the Atacama in the country’s north and Torres del Paine in the far south.
I found Pumalín’s landscape – and that of the whole of southern Chile – to be the Andes at its most dramatic, but Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands, which I visited in 2018, was a more vivid demonstration of the rewilding concept. Hunting and ranching have made way for the restoration of habitat and the successful reintroduction of mammal species, such as giant anteaters, pampas deer and collared peccary. Birdsong here is a cacophony and many rare species have been brought back, including the spectacular green-winged macaw, which was previously extinct. The flock came mostly from ZSL London Zoo and had to be trained on-site by specialists to successfully survive in the wild. The area and its wildlife coexist with sustainable tourism programmes in line with the Tompkins’ vision of admittance for everyone.
From Rincón del Socorro, an estancia in the heart of the region, your guides will take you on walking and horseback trails into a landscape that feels African in both its scale and its habitat. The sunsets, and reflections of reeds on water, are similar to those of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. In this wetland area, second in size only to Brazil’s Pantanal, the birdlife is remarkably diverse, and there are abundant pampas deer, capybara, caiman and even the giant anteater.
For those interested in hands-on conservation, the first two jaguar cubs were born in captivity in 2019 at the organisation’s Jaguar Reintroduction Centre in San Alonso, with others also in the process of being rewilded. To have access to guides and researchers who are involved in such groundbreaking work is a rare privilege and an extra hop by light aircraft to see the programme in action is well worth the extra time and expense. The eyes of the world are on the Iberá Wetlands.
To date, Tompkins Conservation has helped form 11 national parks in the Southern Cone and expand five others. The scope is vast and even includes creating 30 million acres of marine reserves. The foundation continues to form new protected areas in which they can rewild species and restore the ecological balance, while still embodying Doug’s original notion of a social justice that everyone should be able to appreciate the masterpieces of their environment.
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