In addition to the wildlife conservation programs that Conservacion Patagonica manages, the park also hosts leading scientific researchers studying a range of topics, from archeology to armadillos. Throughout this year, Francisco — and his professor Cristian — are conducting field research on the Ñandú (Lesser Rhea) population in Valle Chacabuco, looking at this large flightless bird’s preferred habitat and possible locations for translocation. Only two populations of this threatened species remain in the entire Aysen Region. Read on for an interview with Francisco.
What’s your name, where are you from, and where did you study?
My name is Francisco Ignacio Sánchez Castro. I was born in Santiago on January 7, 1987. I studied Forestry at the University of Chile (I finished the courses and completed my practicum; I just need the actual title).
Why did you come to Valle Chacabuco?
I came because my professor and thesis advisor, Cristian Estades, knows Cristian Saucedo [Conservacion Patagonica’s Conservation Director], who contacted him about conducting research on Ñandú in the area. My professor selected me as the student to conduct the on-the-ground research.
How did you start working on the Ñandú project, or how did you begin working with your professor?
I was considering the Ñandú as a possible subject for my thesis. A fellow at the University, who was working with Cristian Estades before me, needed people to help out with various wildlife projects. When I talked with him, he told me about a project in Maule and a project on the Ñandú in Aysen. Ultimately, I was more interested in the Ñandú project because of its location: in a future National Park in the Aysen region, which I love. I then discussed this topic with a few other people and finally stuck with this subject.
What did your teacher study and what experiences does he have)?
My professor, Cristian Estades, has a degree in Forest Engineering from the University of Chile (1993), a Masters in Wildlife Ecology (U. Wisconsin-Madison, USA, 1997) and a PhD in Wildlife Ecology (U. Wisconsin-Madison, USA, 2001).
What are the major questions in your study?
The study’s main objective is to generate a model of habitat or niche for the Ñandú. A secondary objective is to generate a map of potential areas in Valle Chacabuco where the Ñandú may be later translocated, in accordance with the characteristics of the local habitat.
What have you learned during your visit here?
During my visit, I learned a lot about the customs of Patagonia, especially those of traditional farming/ ranching life. Moreover, I learned a lot about Conservacion Patagonica’s project in the area, including plans to protect wildlife and create trails, infrastructure and organization.
What are some interesting facts about the Ñandú?
- They are the smallest type of South American ostrich.
- The species is divided into three varieties: pennata (found in the Aysen and Magallanes regions of Argentina), tarapacensis (found in the Chilean Altiplano), and darwinii (found in Peru and Bolivia)
- They are polygamous and polyandrous, which means that males mate with several females and females with several males.
- Both males and females incubate the eggs and rear the charitos (baby Ñandús).
What are the threats to the Ñandú here?
The fences greatly limit their movements: specifically, the fences around the Rati property (where the police division and Cuadro ovejero are located) limit their entry to Valle Chacabuco. Additionally, pumas are a major predator; foxes also attack baby Ñandú. Birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, can be a danger to the babies. However, Ñandú have no problem living among cows, sheep and guanacos. Our model suggests that Ñandús prefer to live in the flatter lands with fewer hills.
Outside the park, the main threat is humans, especially in Argentina, where Ñandús are hunted for their feathers, leather and meat. Egg collection is a significant problem as well.
What role does the Ñandú play in the ecosystem?
The Ñandú is a flightless bird, and omnivorous – ie eats mainly plants, but also, to a lesser extent, insects, grasshoppers, and small vertebrates such as lizards or frogs. Their role in the food chain is in the middle, similar to the guanaco, and other animals in Valle Chacabuco.
Why is Valle Chacabuco a good habitat for the Ñandú?
Valle Chacabuco provides all of the vegetation most commonly associated with Ñandú populations. This includes Coiron (Festuca gracillima) and Neneo (Mulinum spinosum). This vegetation is found across the valley, and is more or less similar (depending on the exact location in the valley) to the vegetation found around the Ñandú population near the border with Argentina. Professor Cristian Estades’ research in Torres del Paine indicates that Ñandús can coexist perfectly with guanacos, as they have the same predators in Valle Chacabuco. Even in Argentina, you can spot Ñandús in places with much poorer habitat than can be found in various parts of Valle Chacabuco. For these reasons, we believe a priori that the Ñandú can thrive in the Chacabuco Valley without problems.