Restoring the Darwin's rhea at the future Patagonia National Park

E-mail Print

Photo: Justin LotakPhoto: Justin Lotak


By Cristián Saucedo 
Translation by Brent Harlow
Three years ago, Conservación Patagónica began its Darwin’s Rhea Conservation Program with the construction of a breeding center and the installation of park rangers to patrol, take censuses, and set up camera traps to monitor wild Darwin’s rheas and identify threats to their survival.
Since 2015, the breeding center for the Darwin's rhea (also known as Lesser rhea or ñandú) has been operating in the Valle Chacabuco. It is the first center of its kind to be established for a native species in the Aysén region, and part of the future Patagonia National Park, which the Chilean government in March announced will be part of a new network of national parks in the Patagonia region. 
The breeding center began its operations following the rescue of orphaned Darwin’s rhea chicks by the Chilean border police in the Entrada Baker zone. Many more birds were subsequently added when, in a large and unprecedented operation, Darwin’s rheas from a breeding ground in the Araucanía region were transported by air to the Aysén. All of this was carried out in accordance with the specifications of the Hunting Law and the enforcement of the Agriculture and Livestock Service ("SAG" by its Spanish acronym).

Photo: Cristián SaucedoPhoto: Cristián Saucedo

The establishment of the breeding center is a critical component of the Darwin’s Rhea Conservation Program, since the care and management of the bird in conditions of semi-captivity serves to promote the specie
s multiplication. With adequate reproduction and survival rates, it will be possible for the center to make a significant contribution of new Darwin’s rheas to the now reduced and endangered local population. The program’s main objective is to establish a viable population of wild Darwin’s rheas, and avoid the species’ extinction in the territory that is its natural habitat.

Currently, the local population of Darwin’s rheas does not exceed 30 individuals in the eastern sector of the future Patagonia National Park, which justifies the conservation efforts in the Valle Chacabuco. For more than a century, hills and fences have isolated this population from others in Argentina. It is located more than 200 kilometers—in a straight line—from the only other Darwin’s rhea population in Aysén, namely that of the Estancia Baño Nuevo. For this reason, the Hunting Law recognizes the Darwin’s rhea as a species in danger of extinction in the Aysén region.

A model developed from studies of the Darwin’s rhea and its habitat, carried out by researchers from the Agrarian and Forest Sciences program at the University of Chile, determined that throughout the Valle Chacabuco, there are numerous high quality sites that would offer suitable habitation for the species. This allows us to project a recuperation in the total number of Darwin’s rheas, and a probable redistribution of the species throughout the region.

Photo: Hernán PovedanoPhoto: Hernán Povedano

The Darwin’s rhea is one of the largest birds of Chile. It belongs to the ratite order of non-flying birds and can reach speeds of up to 70 kilometers per hour. The species is endemic to the Patagonian steppe. Its male members have the distinction of being the ones to make the nests (on the ground), incubate the eggs, and protect the chicks from threats. The females mate with more than one male during the breeding season.

Between August and November of the most recent mating season, the Darwin’s rheas at the reproduction center reached 2 years of age and began to demonstrate courting, mating and incubation behavior. This signaled the likelihood of their first reproductive season, albeit one with uncertain results and with low chances of success, given the young age of the birds (since Darwin’s rheas are generally not considered mature until after three years of age).

Happily, this first breeding season surpassed all expectations, and resulted in the births of more than 20 chicks, which vary in age between 16 and 20 weeks old. Some can be found together with their parents in reproduction or rearing corrals.

Photo: Cristián SaucedoPhoto: Cristián Saucedo

The greatest efforts will be made to ensure that these chicks become the pioneering members of a program that aims to contribute to the growth of the wild population, and to continue to do this work into the future. The program also plans to incorporate genetic material drawn from other wild populations in the region, so as to significantly increase the chances of successfully restoring the species’ population in the Valle Chacabuco.

The process of caring for, raising, breeding, and managing Darwin’s rheas has meant a lot of work and an intensive period of learning for the team of rangers and professionals in charge of implementing this program. The team has had the privilege of being able to rely on the support of experts from the Union of Ornithologists of Chile, Fauna Andina, various professionals from Argentina, as well as specialists on ratites from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

We hope that what has already been achieved, with the births of the first generation of chicks in the program, marks the first step toward the restoration of the Darwin’s rhea population in the region. Our hope is that new partners can join efforts with us and work toward the recuperation of this iconic bird of the Patagonian steppe, a symbol of the megafauna of the future Patagonia National Park.

The author, Cristian Saucedo, is a veterinarian as well as conservation director and wildlife program administrator for Conservacion Patagonica.