Protecting top predators at Península Valdés

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Photo: Jorge CazenavePhoto: Jorge Cazenave
By Romina Bottazzi

Editors Note: The following is from Issue 16.
For more than a century, the puma has been perceived as a threat in Argentina, particularly by the livestock industry. Conflict with man has brought this feline species almost to the verge of extinction. In some provinces there is still a system in place whereby the government will pay compensation for dead pumas or foxes. Even today, the stories of hunters, ranchers and farmers who still enjoy a puma steak are common.
Nevertheless, puma populations are starting to recover in areas where they had previously all but disappeared. This apparently has something to do with a drastic fall in the level of sheep farming and an increase in the population of native guanacos (puma’s preferred diet) which are gradually coming back to the Patagonian pampas. But it also has something to do with the fact that in some areas, such as the Península Valdés, the hunting of native species has been outlawed, something that gained importance in 1999 when the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That said, there are still insufficient studies of puma populations that give a comprehensive idea of their real status in Argentina and their behavior in different regions of the country.
Legislation regarding protection of pumas differs in each province so that while hunting these animals is illegal in some provinces, in others they are seen as a pest  and hunting them is allowed all year round. In that context, Fundación Protejamos Patagonia (Let's Protect Patagonia Foundation) has been formed by residents of Península Valdés with the aim of promoting environmental action that is complementary and supports the World Heritage Site status. In the short term, the idea is to promote projects that help mitigate the conflict between farmers and native fauna.
A livestock guardian dog in Cochrane, Aysén. Ranchers in this area have successfully utilized the guardian dogs to ward off predators such as puma. Photo: Jimmy ValdesA livestock guardian dog in Cochrane, Aysén. Ranchers in this area have successfully utilized the guardian dogs to ward off predators such as puma. Photo: Jimmy Valdes
Given the clear benefits that ecotourism and wildlife observation has brought to the area, the foundation aims to establish some form of coexistence, a balance between livestock production and the survival of native fauna. In fact, many local farmers have begun to turn their focus to tourism, conservation and sustainability.
And the results are evident. A century ago the Peninsula Valdés coastline was a hub for the hunting of whales, penguins, wolves and elephant seals. Today, ecotourism has led to a change in paradigm, becoming an important source of income for local inhabitants and attracting thousands of visitors every year to enjoy one of the best places in the world to observe whales and marine life. This has increased awareness of the importance of nature conservation and is a perfectly replicable model for top predators at Península Valdés, most importantly the puma.
Relying mainly on donations, Fundación Protejamos Patagonia has taken its first action, purchasing two pairs of livestock guardian dogs, which, when raised with the sheep, prove an invaluable asset in protecting the flock by driving away top predators. This is seen as one of the initial steps to mitigate conflict between sheep herders and native species and will be the first of many steps in pursuit of conservation.

The author, Romina Bottazzi, is director of Bottazzi Whale Watch, and founder of Fundación Protejamos Patagonia which carries out environmental education campaigns to protect the puma and other wildlife in the region.   

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