It is twilight in Las Horquetas valley in Patagonia’s northern Aysén region. Several cars have pulled over beneath sandy cliffs on a wide paved road. Just metres away, three deer graze unperturbed in the glow of the car lights.
The Patagonian huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus), or South Andean deer, is the most endangered hoofed animal in South America. Fewer than 1,500 survive today – two-thirds are found in Chile and the remainder in Argentina, where the huemul’s principal habitat is lenga forest and scrubland. They exist in severely fragmented groups of 101 known sub-populations, with 60% of these comprising only 10-20 individuals, making them susceptible to freak weather events. They also suffer from poor genetic diversity.
The huemul was first brought to the attention of the wider public in Chile in 1834, when the British painter Charles C Wood Taylor convinced the government that a creature from the largely unexplored Patagonian territory should accompany the condor in his design for the country’s coat of arms. The huemul, “an almost unknown animal”, was chosen. It has been officially protected since 2006, when it was given Chilean natural monument status, and in 2010 Chile and Argentina agreed to jointly conserve the deer.
Today, conservation efforts in Chile are being stepped up. Gustavo Saldivia, founder of the Aumen Foundation, which has been protecting huemul on an 8,500-hectare (32 sq mile) area of public land near Tortel in Chile since 2001, thinks he knows why. “It flutters its eyelashes. It’s sexy,” he says.
The organisation Rewilding Chile is also working to protect huemul by buying areas of wilderness and private grazing land in Patagonia for restoration and conservation projects. In 2018, it gave 400,000 hectares of rewilded land to the country, collaborating with the government to create a Route of Parks, which today connects a patchwork of 17 national parks, extending 1,700 miles over the southern third of Chile.
Lead Image: A huemul feeds as night falls in Las Horquetas valley. Photograph: Matt Maynard.
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