Lying in the small, land-locked South American country of Paraguay, San Rafael is a site wreathed in environmental accolades, glittering with conservation aspirations yet undermined by uncertainties.
San Rafael contains two of the continent’s most threatened ecosystems: Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest and Mesopotamian grasslands. San Rafael protects Paraguay’s largest remnants of the former habitat, and was designated Paraguay’s first Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).
It has long been considered the country’s highest priority for biodiversity conservation, consequently receiving concerted attention from Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife Paraguay) and other conservation organisations.
The site harbours 13 Globally Threatened Birds and 18 classified as Near Threatened. More bird species have been found at San Rafael than anywhere in Paraguay; roughly 430, c.60% of the country’s total. The avifauna is complemented by 61 mammal species, 35 amphibians, 52 fish, and 47 reptiles. And those numbers are rising: three reptiles new to science were discovered in San Rafael’s grasslands during 2006.
Among birds, pole position is taken by 70 species endemic to the Atlantic Forests. These include numerous species that trigger IBA classification, notably globally threatened birds such as Helmeted Woodpecker Hylatomus galeatus, Bare-throated Bellbird Procnias nudicollis, and Russet-winged Spadebill Platyrinchus leucoryphus, plus Near Threatened species such as Solitary Tinamou Tinamus solitarius, Rusty-barred Owl Strix hylophila, and Yellow-browed Woodpecker Piculus aurulentus.
Understandably then, San Rafael first grabbed conservationists’ attention for its Atlantic Forest. But as biologists explored the site, they discovered that its natural grasslands also teemed with rare birds. Open-country species include globally threatened representatives of both damp and dry grasslands. Among them are Saffron-cowled Blackbird Xanthopsar flavus, Ochre-breasted Pipit Anthus nattereri, and a trio of Tyrants: Cock-tailed Alectrurus tricolor, Strange-tailed A. risora and Sharp-tailed Culicivora caudacuta.
Rusty-barred Owl © Pete Morris/Birdquest
With such an abundance of riches, one might assume protection to be a shoe-in. Not so. The conservation of San Rafael’s 70,000 ha is a long, convoluted and ongoing tale. In 1992, the Paraguayan government arrived at the Rio Earth Summit having declared San Rafael an ‘Area Reserved for a National Park’. And so the site’s status remains despite attempts to ‘upgrade’ it to a real National Park or managed-resources reserve. In consequence, San Rafael is a ‘paper park’, lacking legal protection, receiving scant conservation management resources, and with its ownership scattered between nearly 50 landlords.
Painfully aware that the country’s most important rainforest risked destruction, Guyra Paraguay has made San Rafael a strategic priority. Since 2001, it has purchased and managed 6,500 ha of land as the Guyra Reta reserve, pioneered a model of joint social and environmental ownership with local Mbya Guaraní communities, donated 500 ha to the national government to formally run, and led an accredited REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) carbon-storage project that pays communities to manage forest rather than clear it for agriculture.
Given Guyra Paraguay’s target of protecting at least 20,000 ha, San Rafael is justifiably one of BirdLife International’s 20 ‘Forests of Hope’, not just one of its 422 ‘IBAs in Danger’.