Can the world’s largest rewilding project restore Patagonia’s beauty?
Purchasing huge tracts of land in Chile and Argentina, former clothing tycoons Doug and Kristine Tompkins have led a quarter century-long effort to reintroduce threatened and locally extinct species to the wilds of South America
by Jonathan Franklin in Valle Chacabuco, Chile
During an elegant dinner in the wilds of Patagonia, Kris Tompkins suddenly remembered the fresh guanaco carcass down the road. She rose from the table and drove us to the nearby grasslands of Patagonia national park, gushing about the possibility of staying up all night with a torch in hope of spying a mountain lion come to feast on the dead llama-like creature.
As she drove, Tompkins narrated her quarter century-long effort to reintroduce threatened and locally extinct species to the wilds of South America – ranging from giant anteaters and jaguars in northern Argentina to Darwin’s rhea, a species of ostrich native to southern Patagonia. When Conservación Patagónica – the NGO she helped found – bought the land that became this park, the guanaco population was struggling to compete for food and space with an estimated 25,000 sheep. But since the sheep were sold and the fences removed, native guanaco herds have flourished from an unsustainable population of several hundred to an estimated 3,000.
After purchasing a 222,000-acre property in 2004, Tompkins and her partner Doug, who died in a kayak accident in 2015, dedicated the following years to their conservation effort. Using hundreds of volunteers, Conservación Patagónica has converted these overgrazed sheep ranchlands into a world-renowned example of ecological restoration by reintroducing and breeding native species as part of a comprehensive rewilding programme.
First coined in the 1990s by environmental activist Dave Foreman, rewilding– large-scale wilderness recovery that allows natural processes and native wildlife to flourish – has migrated from fringe fantasy to the mainstream of conservation biology. Scientists increasingly believe the complex web of life thrives in the absence of human intervention and is often heavily influenced by mountain lions, wolves and other “apex predators”.
“I am a big non-human advocate. I get along better with the non-human world probably than the human world,” said Tompkins. “I would like to change the way national parks look at rewilding everywhere in the world where there are extirpated species, [and to] make it one of the goals of national parks everywhere. As they say, landscape without wildlife is just scenery.”