Patagonia and Southern Andean Steppe, Argentina

The spectacular expanse of Argentina's Patagonian and Southern Andean Steppe is one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth. The last stronghold of the guanaco, Darwin's rhea, and Andean condor, it also harbors vicuñas and endangered Andean cats. Other inhabitants of these vast, windswept plateaus include the mara, a deer-like rodent, the rock-dwelling mountain vizcacha, many endemic plants and lizards, and abundant waterfowl in high-altitude wetlands.

The Patagonia and Southern Andean Steppe encompasses some 270,000 square miles, with more than 95 percent of this land under private ownership. Human activities, including sheep ranching and natural resource extraction, increasingly threaten this biologically unique ecosystem. Only about 1 percent of the steppe and scrub habitats are currently under strict protection, and the future of the region depends on sound, science-based conservation measures that will protect its remaining wilderness and wildlife.

Fast Facts

  • Patagonia was once the domain of the Tehuelches, a nomadic people who depended on the guanacos and rheas that occupied this landscape.
  • The rare Andean cat, formerly known to live only at elevations exceeding 9,500 feet above sea level, was recently discovered in northern Patagonia at only 2,000 feet.
  • Climate change models predict increased aridity due to rising temperatures and reduced precipitation in this area.

Challenges

Livestock and introduced species compete with native wildlife for food and water, transmit diseases, and have caused desertification of 30 percent of the steppe. Oil and mineral extraction by multi-national companies destroys habitat, creates roads that give access to illegal hunters, and reduces water availability and quality. The effects of these threats will be aggravated by increased aridity that results from global warming.

Most of the steppe is in the hands of private landowners with extensive ranches; hardly any of the landscape is under government protection. This makes conservation a challenging enterprise, demanding creative solutions that recruit multinational companies, local landowners, and poor herders as partners in protecting this ecosystem and its wildlife.

WCS Responds

With over 20 years of experience working in the region, WCS currently focuses on the Andean Patagonia Steppe landscape, 20,000 square miles encompassing the Payunia and Auca Mahuida provincial reserves, Tromen and Llancanelo wetlands, and surrounding lands in northern Patagonia. Our key goals are to conserve the large Payunia guanaco migration, connect landscapes for guanacos to travel over in other parts of the landscape, and protect Darwin´s rheas, Andean condors, waterfowl diversity, and the southernmost population of Andean cats.

WCS works with a variety of partners in the region to achieve our goals. By collaborating with provincial governments, we strengthen capacity to manage reserves. We help goat herders to reduce their impact on biodiversity while increasing their incomes through improved goat husbandry. We also partner with oil and mining companies to ensure that wildlife continues to thrive long after oil and mineral stores are depleted. With oversight from WCS and the Neuquén government, for example, the Repsol oil company closed 400 exploration trails in 2006, blocking access by illegal hunters to 545,000 acres, where guanacos have already begun to recover.

WCS is also documenting guanaco migrations in the remote San Guillermo and Somuncura landscapes. In San Guillermo, WCS assists government agencies in drafting reserve management plans and monitoring impacts of an expanding open-pit gold mining industry.

At the regional level, WCS is training local government personnel to monitor and mitigate impacts of oil and mining extraction, and helping government agencies identify new priority areas for conservation in the steppe.

From the Newsroom

Cashmere's Conscience: Wildlife Friendly Practices in PatagoniaAugust 28, 2012

Patagonian cashmere has gone “green” with a new certification by the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. The business venture supports the local economy while respecting this magnificent yet fragile landscape.

Fashion Goes Green in PatagoniaMarch 1, 2012

WCS helps a group of Argentine cashmere producers adopt sustainable husbandry practices that improve their livelihoods while also protecting the guanacos, rheas, and Andean cats that share their turf.

Andean Cats Stray from the AndesMarch 16, 2011

A WCS survey finds an endangered Andean cat population living lower than ever, down from the Andes Mountains and onto the Patagonian Steppe.

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