The Huemul or Andean Deer is a bit like the Yeti, not due to excessively large hooves or a penchant for snow cones, but as a creature that is widely revered yet impossible to find.
For some thousand kilometres of cycling through Patagonia we passed yellow road signs cautioning drivers of its presence, we scoured Parque Huemul for six hours, we cycled down Huemul Street, contemplated staying at Hostel Huemul and even sampled a namesake artisanal beer, yet still we were no closer to sighting this seemingly mythical ungulate. You see the sad thing about the elusive huemul (pronounced weh-mool) is that there are less than 1500 of them left in existence…. little more than the capacity of two metropolitan line trains on a Monday morning (though it would be inadvisable to try and get them down the escalators).
Identifiable by their strange bow leg stance and coarse brown hair, these small stocky deer live in the rugged terrain of the southern Andes of Chile and Argentina. They can weather winter wind chill temperatures as low as -50oC yet despite this hardy nature they live on the brink of extinction. The usual culprits: livestock ranching, fires, invasive species, over-grazing, construction and tree plantations have all led to the fragmentation of suitable habitat. The grizzly European colonist habit of feeding huemul to their dogs hardly helped and the end of the 19th century saw a 99% decrease in their population.
Needless to say on that particularly bright Tuesday morning we had given up the ‘goat’ on our search for the infamous deer. Sweating fairly profusely we made it up the final switchback of the 1100m climb to the top of the Portezuelo Ibañez, cheered on by a coach load of German tourists who mirthlessly mocked Sam for coming in some minutes behind me. I wasn’t sure if this was outright sexist or not but I lapped up the glory all the same. As we turned on the downhill tunes and started the heavenly descent, the last thing I expected to see was a huemul, or a yeti come to that.
Sam screeched to a halt some metres ahead and I swore nearly slamming into the back of his bike. “Shhhhhh” he hissed gesticulating wildly at the yellow carpeted meadow extending from the foot of the hills. It couldn’t be, could it? But it was. Right there in front of us, innocuously grazing in the meadow was Chile’s national animal and not just one of them but five!
We enjoyed this seemingly magical moment for about a minute and a half before the first car pulled to a halt beside us, quickly followed by a coach load of school children, five more cars and a truck whose driver decided it was a good idea to leave his engine rattling and rasping while he got out the cabin for a closer look. As we stood in a cloud of diesel fumes with school children yelling and shrieking around us, one man decided that he wasn’t close enough and, selfie stick in hand, started to heave his leg over the roadside barrier. In an all too English way, I tried to encourage a silent and respectful viewing by smiling and pressing my fingers to my lips… to no avail. These much-maligned creatures which have been pushed to the very edge of existence by humans were now being hounded in a fashion not dissimilar to a throng of eager Beliebers clamouring to watch Justin eat his lunch. But then, just as the selfie sticker swung his second leg over the barrier and the deer, ears pricked, broke into a light evasive trot, something unexpected happened.
Clad in biker suits emblazoned with the CONAF (National Forestry Commission) logo they dismounted their quad bike seemingly in slow-mo (think Baywatch). Within seconds the crowd had been re-instated behind the barriers and were eagerly probing the two swarthy rangers for facts about the fauna. It was a slick operation but these Huemul-hero’s could surely only be in so many places at once?
Catching up with the two rangers once the hubbub had died down they told us that this was not an unusual scene. With only 40 deer left in the park, it isn’t too hard to keep a track of them and where possible harassment might occur. However, excessive attention from well-meaning fans was not their only concern. One of the rangers, a vet, explained that they were less visible threats lurking in the National Park. He had been collecting samples from abscesses increasingly found on the park’s deer and had determined that the disease had been transmitted from domestic sheep… yet another pressure on this already precarious population.
CONAF are not the only ones working hard in the race to protect the Huemul. With the creation of Parque Patagonia, Conservacion Patagonica have expanded the contiguous protected habitat on the northern shore of Lago Cochrane and Tamango National Reserve sixfold. Whilst actively removing livestock, monitoring huemul populations and reviving ecosystems with the stated aim of ‘returning this iconic animal to its rightful place of prominence in the forests and mountains of Patagonia’. Further south in the 3.5million hector Bernard O’Higgins National Park efforts to control cattle farming and policing of poaching have seen the return of the deer to areas in which they had previously vanished.
In 2006 the Huemul was given ‘National Monument’ status. I always think it seems a bit weird to give an animal ‘monument’ status, it slightly morbidly makes me think of a shrine or tomb to a once magnificent relic rather than a living breathing creature. Nomenclature aside it was reassuring to see such active monitoring and conservation in process. All too often isolated swathes of nature are given protected status with no active means of enforcing the laws of the land, negating any positive outcomes. Yet the fruitful collaboration between government, NGOs and scientists alongside the new wildlife corridor, Parque Patagonia, created by the joining of Kristine Tompkins’ private reserve with the neighbouring national reserves of Tamango and Jeinimeni to create a 650,000-acre public access park is undeniably positive.
It seems there is hope for the hardy huemul yet.
This article is part of a series on sustainability in South America by Emily and Sam of Two By Bamboo. Cycling 10,000km from Patagonia to Colombia on worryingly wonky homemade bamboo bikes, their mission is to share the stories of the movers, shakers, recyclers and makers of the continent.
Biologist turned producer Emily worked on a number of documentaries for BBC and Discovery Channel in the UK before moving down under where she joined SBS as an impact producer. By sharing the stories of amazing humans and animals she meets, Emily hopes to inspire herself and others to make more positive choices for our planet.
Read more at twobybamboo.com