Patagonian National Park, A Fragile Beauty At The End Of The World
The Patagonian National Park is a spectacular and unique landscape that illustrates the outstanding beauty of nature. But it is at risk of becoming a victim of the climate crisis.
SANTA CRUZ — The northwestern corner of the Argentine province of Santa Cruz is the setting for the Patagonian National Park, an exquisitely neglected part of a region that has become a byword for escapism.
The songwriter Atahualpa Yupanqui called this windswept plateau, with its elevated floodplains and wetlands, the "night watchman of the Americas." Every day the sun shakes up an explosion of earthy colors here before night returns to cast over them a veil of subtle, indefinable mystery. In this merging point of glaciers and the eternal snows of the Zeballos peak, water in so many forms, a Yellow Cliff (Cerro amarillo), prehistoric artworks, volcanic cones and a star-lit sky, only one thing is certain — that nothing is still in this ethereal part of the earth.
Around the Lake Buenos Aires plateau, the park hosts a unique ecosystem of rare and endemic species such as the hooded grebe, and was the home of several prehispanic cultures that left their petroglyphs. The park has three entry points, with camping sites, bathing facilities and even catering options in peak visiting periods.
Facundo Nahuel Epul, a guide and member of the Mapuche nation, is an expert in finding wildlife in this area, and especially the puma or mountain lion, a crucial part of the food chain. He knows its odors, habitats and tracks. From his town of Perito Moreno, he offers guided tours inside the park's Cañadón del río Pinturas reserve.
He says, "I've had the puma or lion as we call it here in my head since childhood. I grew up in the countryside, where it is a part of every conversation. Then I began to know it from another side, and learn. Landowners both hate and fear the animal, especially those who don't live here. My dad used to work for one and I'd go with him on hunting rounds."
He has never fired on one, but he understands the fears of farmers and workers. He believes there are other ways of dealing with the animal, and wants education above all. There were types of guard dogs, he said, that were far more dangerous to livestock, and a well-trained sheepdog was enough to protect a herd from pumas, without any shooting.
I grew up in the countryside, where it is a part of every conversation.
The Santa Cruz Agrarian Council has offered money in the past for killing mountain lions. For 2023, its office in charge of fauna allows an Andean fox and a puma to be shot once a week, a grey fox every fortnight and two guanacos a day. No shooting is allowed in reserves, of species not listed, or by people without permits or registered guns. Naturally, the puma is wary of people and has learned to hide, which has aided its survival.
Facundo's work is based on respect and distance. He took uson one of his "treasure hunts" as he calls them. For two days before the trip, he had trekked through 18 kilometers of bushy ground hoping to find a puma in vain. But when he found a dead guanaco, he knew this might attract predators, and he was right. We saw one puma nearby, then another a half hour later. They played and slept, but were alert to the slightest sound.
"This doesn't happen every day," he said. Facundo has learned to discern the various types of puma and knows that a female usually stays to shelter cubs from the wind. He once led tourists to where they could view an entire family of liones.
Photograph of Patagonia National Park's wildlife
The Cañadón del Río Pinturas (the Pinturas river and its low-lying plain) looks sterile at first. Its volcanic landscape is from the Jurassic period (dating 150 million years). It is one of the park's gateways, leading to a smaller park known as the Cueva de las Manos. This is a UNESCO listed site with more than 1,500 examples of rock art, and has been a World Heritage Site since 1999. In spite of its registration and importance, the site was subject to ownership disputes and a mining firm even sought to dig for gold here. Public outrage and court action prevented that. The area became a provincial park in 2018, after plots of land were bought by the Rewilding Argentina foundation and given to the province.
These printed hands give "a sensation of a lasting clamor and vibrant prayer."
The cave paintings are "printed" 88 meters above the riverbed. The late Carlos Gradin, an assiduous student of this art, observed that these printed hands give "a sensation of a lasting clamor and vibrant prayer." They predate the great cities of Mesopotamia, ranging in date from around 9000 BC to 1300 BC.
Archaeological remains found here suggest the original inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, and testify to the longevity of the notion of beauty. Patagonian rock art shows that even in harsh living conditions, humans had something to say beyond mere subsistence, venerated the animals they would hunt and eat, and found time to invent artistic tools and devise natural dyes in the course of their short, precarious lives. They even dared to paint the stars.
These settlers may have been the ancestors of the Tehuelche Indians, a Patagonian tribe that was largely decimated in the 19th century.
Blue waters of the Patagonia National Park
Flora and fauna under threat
As elsewhere in the world, local temperatures here have risen to unseemly levels. "We had more than 30 degrees (centigrade) in the steppe. This isn't normal," Facundo said. This, he warned, would affect the upland lakes, with a consequent impact on wildlife. The lake that hosted the greatest number of hooded grebes, he said, "has been dry for two years now. The species is in places where it cannot build nests" as it needed the cutleaf watermilfoil, a local plant that grows in very particular conditions.
Facundo recalls that in his childhood, snow began to fall well before the end of May (ahead of the southern-hemisphere winter), but the last big snowfall came in 2020. Cattle farming was also drying up the soil, he said, and invasive species were threatening local flora and fauna.
The Rewilding Argentina foundation has had a key role in expanding, developing and protecting the park as part of its Patagonian Park project, one of its four big rewilding projects in the country. The body buys land, which it gifts to local government and the National Parks authority. A key measure taken here was to open up the terrain previously divided with wire fences that are often lethal to animals. It also makes for far easier visiting.
The head of the foundation, Sofía Heinonen, cites the provincial park and its artistic remains as precious evidence of the routes taken by the original settlers of this part of the American continent. They followed the movements of the guanacos as their source of food and wool. Today, she says, photographers from across the world come to take their pictures.
Monte Fitz Roy, Patagonia National Park
Window into the cosmos
The foundation has a monitoring station in the Caracoles plain, called El Unco. Its coordinator, Emanuel Galetto, told Clarín that the station watches and keeps track of pumas with collars, antennae and hidden cameras. Landowners and farmers were given part of the data as part of an informative dialogue to show them the puma's ecosystemic importance. The station also works to safeguard species, and restore disappeared species like the South Andean deer, which may be reintroduced from Chile.
Carlos Gradin, that student of Patagonian rock art, loved the region's star-studded night skies. In November, the park will open the Elsa Rosenvasser Feher planetarium (Centro de interpretación y planetario Elsa Rosenvasser Feher), a science and astronomy center with a didactic focus on the night sky, the earth and the environment.
Rosenvasser was a scientist and philanthropist who liked to create museums. This was her last project, built in collaboration with the province and Rewilding Argentina. It will honor the vast Patagonian sky and the "poncho of stars" that would have awed the ancient tribes. It may even revive among visitors a little of that ancestral intuition of the holistic ties that bind us to nature.
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