Guardians of Reñihué

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The Reñihué Valley in Palena, Chile. Photo: Eduardo Minte The Reñihué Valley in Palena, Chile. Photo: Eduardo Minte
By Rodrigo Barria
Editor's note: The following is from Issue 26.
To protect the Reñihué Valley through interdisciplinary work is the mission of the Reñihué Nature Conservancy Foundation, a non-profit whose long-term ecological monitoring of species is setting a new standard in conservation research in South America. The foundation combines scientific research, communication, and environmental education toward preserving the lush valley and wild Patagonian fjord in this historic private nature area located near the northern entrance of Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park in the Chilean province of Palena.
It can be called historic, because the 708-hectare (1,750 acres) Reñihué Valley was the first property that the late American philanthropist Doug Tompkins bought when commencing his monumental work over the ensuing three decades that led to the creation of 15 national parks in Chile and Argentina.
In 2017, another American businessman-turned-conservationist, Charlie Clark, purchased the property for US$9 million from the Tompkins clan with the stated intention to continue protecting Reñihué. Dominated by lush Valdivian temperate rainforest, the diverse ecosystem at Reñihué Valley is a transitional zone for flora and fauna from the Patagonian Andes and the fjordic Pacific coast, constituting a biological corridor for migratory species such as puma, pudú, and the southern river otter, among others.
The Reñihué Foundation was founded by Clarke in 2020 and has been monitoring and researching the biodiversity in the valley, with a particular emphasis on a native feline called the güiña (Leopardus guigna), or the kodkod cat, the smallest feline in the Americas. They also are studying the ancient trees in the forest and how wildlife such as the puma or pudu interact with the valley habitat.
Some of the countless images of wildlife produced by the 80 trap cameras in the Reñihué Valley. Photos: Reñihué FoundationSome of the countless images of wildlife produced by the 80 trap cameras in the Reñihué Valley. Photos: Reñihué Foundation
Their work is resulting in pioneering scientific research through their technique of “long-term, non-invasive, and uninterrupted monitoring.” They have placed 80 trap cameras throughout the Reñihué Valley, providing constant monitoring of species 24 hours per day, all year. The cameras have produced more than 1.2 million photographs and led to the development of a unique method for tracking specific individuals of species. So far, for example, they are following the lifecycle of 12 güiña, a species classified as “vulnerable” on the International Red List of Threatened Species.
It is not easy to do the work in a place where annual rainfall can average 6,000 millimeters. "The rain and dense vegetation challenge the work, but over time we have been learning and perfecting the monitoring method," comments the executive director of the foundation, Eduardo Minte.
That research also fuels their environmental education efforts, which includes workshops and presentations in local schools. "We work together in the collection and analysis of information and in scientific communication, because we think that the formula ‘communication + science’ is the best way to protect our ecosystems," explains Belén Gallardo, general coordinator of the foundation. "The idea is to use a variety of formats to raise awareness about all the inhabitants of Reñihué," adds Valentina Alarcón, illustrator and logistics coordinator.
Still, the best of intentions for this amazing living laboratory could one day be upset by Chile. The public works ministry continues to have on its road building agenda ambitious plans to extend the Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, from Hornopiren to the port of Caleta Gonzalo in the Renihue fjord. That would bring with it enormous ecological consequences in the wake of some 300 kilometers (185 miles) of new tunnels, bridges, and gravel roads. Currently, the area is already connected via ferry boats.
Visit Reñihué Nature Conservancy Foundation at for more information.