Huemul-Watching with Daniel

This week, a group of us set out in search of the elusive huemul, the rare and shy deer living in the forests of the future park.  On our own, we probably wouldn’t see any huemul: the 150 or so animals living in this area camouflage themselves well as they mosey through the woods and thickets.  But we were headed to Daniel’s puesto.  We had a chance.

Daniel Velasquez, now a park guard and huemul tracker, worked herding sheep when Estancia Valle Chacabuco was a livestock operation.   Over ten years ago, he began working with CONAF, the Chilean forest service, taking censuses of the huemul population in Tamango National Reserve.  When Conservacion Patagonica, in conjunction with Chilean biologists, developed a VHF monitoring study for huemuls, Daniel put his field knowledge of huemul to use as the head tracker.   At this point, Daniel has logged more hours watching the movements and behavior of huemul than almost anyone.  He offered to take us with him so we could see these deer for ourselves; we jumped at the chance.

Some on horseback, some on foot, we spent around three hours heading from the estancia, east down the main road, and then south and downhill towards Lago Cochrane on a dirt track.  We radioed Daniel—the only way to get in touch with him—to check if he would be home.  A new windowpane, some chainsaw oil, and a stove part were the housewarming presents we brought.

What initially appears an isolated and basic living situation turns out to be a lively and well-functioning center of activity for this sector of the park.  In a simple but newly reconstructed house overlooking Lago Cochrane, Daniel lives with his wife, Bella, and two sons, Cristian and Daniel.  Running water comes from a hose system set up in a nearby stream.  The large wood stove in the corner of the kitchen provides heat for the house and hot water for washing in addition to cooking food for the family and their many visitors.  Volunteers, visiting scientists and interns, and other guests frequently enjoy spending a day or two with the family, not only to see huemuls but also to drink maté, share an asado, and hear the family’s perspective on the creation of the park.

As soon as we arrived, Daniel told us he had located a deer earlier in the morning.  With the VHF radio tracker, we could determine the direction and proximity of the deer, so we began walking downhill into a small valley near the lake.  Daniel paused often to listen to the beeps from the collar, telling us how close we were and which direction to head.  As we approached, he cautioned us to walk quietly and keep silent.  In the middle of a cluster of lenga trees, a huemul nibbled daintily on dandelion greens.  She lifted her head to listen to us approach; then, reassured that we meant her no harm, she returned to eating.

We sat watching her undramatic performance for the next half hour, her rare presence a reason to sit still and observe the life of the forest.  When she wandered off, we returned up the hill, where Bella had cooked some sopapillos (fry breads) and the boys had started a fire for an asado.  Over countless rounds of mate, we talked about the transition from estancia to park and the region’s future, with HidroAysen’s planned damming of the nearby Baker River looming large.  Bella and the boys spend part of the year in the nearby town of Cochrane, so the boys can go to school; they speak openly about how HidroAysen tries to ingratiate itself through providing visible, short-term handouts to residents.

They believe that as the future park provides and creates more jobs for its neighbors, it becomes a more powerful alternative to the hydroelectric future.  Daniel emphasizes how he prefers his new job to his previous work with livestock, mostly because he’s constantly learning now.  Young Daniel describes the beauty of growing up in the park: he can detail the habits of the huemul and articulate the need to protect them.

With full bellies, we head up the long hill to return to the park headquarters, savoring our day.  Visiting Daniel and his family reaffirms the overarching vision of park building, making it more tangible and personal, more than glowing sunsets and glacier-covered peaks. This emerging and unusual community of people chipping away at various projects creates the energy and camaraderie that keeps the work moving forwards.

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