Saving endangered Darwin’s rhea in Patagonia

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Tompkins Conservation (May 12, 2020, COCHRANE, CHILE) – A new flock of Darwin’s rhea is now roaming the steppe of Patagonia National Park, after a successful upbringing in an onsite reintroduction center dedicated to this threatened species. The fourth release of Darwin’s rheas within the park took place with essential staff exercising the sanitary precautions recommended during the COVID-19 outbreak. A small act of hope during a time of confinement for most of the planet, it is part of an ambitious rewilding program that seeks to restore complete and healthy ecosystems by strengthening vulnerable populations of native fauna.
The national park, created in 2018 in part from a large land donation by Tompkins Conservation, now has a population of 74 individual rheas. Although this flightless bird, similar to the ostrich, is an iconic species of the Patagonian steppe, in the Aysén region it had nearly become extinct over the last century due to excessive hunting, canine predation, the destruction of nests and the collection of eggs for human consumption. In 2015, Tompkins Conservation opened the only center dedicated to recovering the species in South America.
Though challenging, the initiative has been highly successful. “We have tripled the population of this endangered species in less than five years,” says Cristian Saucedo, Rewilding Director of Tompkins Conservation Chile, “as part of a long-term effort over fifteen years to return native species to Patagonia National Park after many years of intensive ranching left a serious impact on the ecosystems of the region.”
At the reproduction center, technicians, with the help of male rheas which play the role of adoptive parents, raise chicks from both local and donated eggs to ensure genetic diversity. Wildlife rangers and volunteers stay year-round at the remote outpost where the center is located, shoveling deep snow from corrals in winter, handling water shortages and preventing pumas from predating vulnerable juvenile rheas.
“When we ask who’s missing and act to bring back species, we are taking the first necessary step in restoring complete ecosystems, which alongside protected areas, are powerful tools to mitigate the climate crisis and recreate a healthy planet,” says Kristine Tompkins, president of Tompkins Conservation and UN Patron of Protected Areas.
Tompkins Conservation began the Rewilding Program in Patagonia National Park in 2005 to work with iconic Patagonian fauna including the extremely endangered Huemul deer, puma, Andean condor and Darwin’s rhea. Since donating the Valle Chacabuco sector to Chilean national parks, the nonprofit continues the program in collaboration with CONAF (National Forestry Corporation), the administrative body of Chile’s national parks.