It seems there’s hardly anything Luigi Solís doesn’t do. In his first three years working at the future Patagonia National Park, he has spearheaded trail construction, worked closely with everyone from former gauchos to international volunteers, and even caught pumas with his bare hands. And that’s not all. In a rare idle moment, Luigi sits down with Lily McKeage to talk about his life in Valle Chacabuco, his family, and his multifaceted role in creating a park.
What made you want to live and work in a future park?
I was raised in the country; my family is from the country. The city is not for me, with all the noise, the crowds, everyone always in a rush. Here we have the privilege of living close to nature and wildlife, free from the dangers of the city.
What are your hopes for the future park? Why is conserving this space important to you?
Above all, this project is important because, at the moment, it is one of the only attempts in Chile to conserve the lowlands steppe. Furthermore, my hope is to see Lake Cochrane and Lake General Carrera preserved together. The future park will connect the Tamango and Jeinimeini reserves: we will have one giant park with two of the greatest lakes in the Aysén region.
My wish, and that of all my colleagues, is that this will indeed become a park. We want to see this land protected forever. With all of the effort to make this a low-cost, sustainable operation, I hope that the parks service will treat it with respect for eternity, for posterity. Finally, I hope that my daughter Tamara, when she grows up and goes off to university, can come back and see the great park that it will be.
What is it like to raise children here?
Luigi with his son Joaquin
It’s a beautiful thing. I have two children, Tamara, who is six and Joaquin who is fifteen months old. Tamara is free to explore on her own. She rides around on her bicycle or on horseback whenever she wants, wherever she wants, because the only danger here is the chance of getting lost in this great expanse. For Tamara, her whole world is under the tree next to our house where all the children play together.
What made you want to get involved with this project?
I first heard about the Tompkins back when I was in school, and I started working here three years ago. What’s most important to me is the ideology behind everything they do. I used to get an earful from lots of Chileans, skeptics, saying I was only a part of this project for the celebrity. But when you come here and really look around, you suddenly realize that the Tompkins’ effort is genuine. It comes from inside them, it occupies one hundred percent of their time – this is true deep ecology, not some sort of mask, it’s of the mind, of the heart.
How would you describe your job here?
About eighty percent of my time is dedicated to researching and constructing the trail system because right now we are building the first trails for the future Patagonia National Park. During the summer, I help oversee the volunteers, who pull out fences and invasive plants, since I am also very involved in restoring the landscape here. But without a doubt, the best part of my job is tracking and capturing Pumas.
Much of Luigi's work involves riding around the future park on horseback
Could you explain the Puma project and your role in it?
We are a team of five, and each of us has particular responsibilities. When I was studying for my technical degree in forestry, I specialized in the collection and harvesting of seeds. I would climb trees using only my feet, wearing cleats and a harness, so that my hands would be free to gather seeds. I now use those skills to climb trees and rappel back down while carrying pumas – once they’ve been sedated, of course.
The process goes like this: we use a team of dogs and we work in the winter when there’s a bit of snow on the ground. We look for footprints and then we let the dogs go, following them on horseback as fast as possible. Once the dogs have found the puma, he usually tries to hide from them, maybe in a cave or up a tree. And this is where I come in; my job is to locate the best tree, get the dogs out of the way, and then shoot the puma with a tranquilizer dart. Not a bullet – we’re capturing, not killing. Then, I have about five or six minutes to climb up, tie the ropes, and bring him down.
Why is it necessary to track pumas in this area?
Basically everything our wildlife team does connects in some way to the protection of the endangered huemul deer. With the puma project, we seek to understand and control the impact of puma predation on huemuls. For the most part, pumas do not hunt huemuls, but sometimes certain pumas will start specializing in hunting huemuls–that’s how puma predation patterns tend to work. Through this program, we can find out if any pumas are hitting especially hard on huemuls, and can then determine if we should move it to a new location or make it move by itself. Each puma tends to occupy a big area on its own. Every time we capture a puma, we put a tracking collar around its neck, which is linked to a GPS and satellite system. Then we can receive all kinds of information about the puma’s activity: we learn how many other animals have died in the area – guanacos, foxes, hares, etc. – and we can know how many days they have food, what they’re hunting, and the exact place.
Setting up a camera trap to monitor a puma kill site
How did you come to be the supervisor of trail building?
I think I got into this work mainly because of my background in landscape restoration, which is inextricably tied to trail building here. In my first two years at Valle Chacabuco, I spent a lot of time pulling out fences and exotic plants, which allowed me to become very familiar with the area. Furthermore, as a native Patagonian, I have a solid friendship with the park guards who used to be the old gauchos, sheepherders, back when this was a ranch. These were the ranchers who stayed on when this land changed hands, because they were offered the chance to be a part of the conservation project. No one knows this land better than they do. Each of these former gauchos now specializes in monitoring a certain animal population. Working well with them is an integral part of constructing a successful trail system. [For more about the guardaparques, see article below.]
What’s involved in building a trail?
First of all, you have to know the whole area really well and, with the help of the park guards, where there is the most damage: from fires, and from sheep herding and grazing. Our job is to restore the area and improve the trail. Then there’s the ubiquitous guanaco, who is the perfect trail builder. Guanacos create and reuse the same paths, so they have trails through places you couldn’t even imagine. So the work of the trail builders here goes hand-in-hand with the restoration of the native ecosystems.
The hard thing about building trails isn’t really building them so much as finding the best paths that connect these distinct trails and turning them into a loop. Our greatest challenge is trying to imagine how it was before, so that we can faithfully restore it. We want to build trails making the least possible new impact on the land.
What would you say to those who might be interested in visiting or volunteering at the future park?
For those who feel drawn to help, of course we welcome them to come and join us in the work that we’re doing for the world – not just for a few people here – to see wildlife, and the conservation of a truly natural space. This is for the whole world; anyone can come here and marvel at this place. I invite anyone to come fight with us to protect wild nature and restore the salvageable but damaged landscapes to health. I hope they will come and lend a hand, because we need their help. There are too few of us who have dedicated our lives to healing the earth, and too many who are destroying it. This movement needs more and more people so that we will be able to preserve a planet with clean water, air, trees, and wild animals.