by Dana De Greff
Once, the huemul deer roamed freely from the south of Santiago to the Magellan’s region in Chile. Then modern threats arose: the introduction of livestock (and deadly diseases); illegal hunting by humans; and attacks from domestic dogs. Today, huemules are critically endangered. There are no more than 2,000 individuals in the entire world.
“The huemul is a symbol, along with the condor, of Chile,” says Cristian Saucedo, Conservation Director at the future Patagonia National Park. “And the first thing we need to do is to make sure people know about them.”
Progress has been made. Every January, the community of Cochrane, a city whose shield has not one but two huemules on it, hosts the Ruta de Huemul, a two-day hike. Our park rangers, along with CONAF, are gathering more information and sparking more interest from the public.
Today, I’m invited to join Saucedo and park ranger Cristian Rivera on a special mission: huemul collaring. By far the most effective way to gather data, the collars allow for tracking through radio telemetry. Of course, I say yes.
On a clear Friday, we set off towards Puesto Huemules in the direction of Lake Cochrane. The ride is intense—winter’s rain, frost and snow have left the dirt road pock-marked and caked with mud. It’s smoother once we reach the lenga (Southern beech) forest, the trees covered in patches of moss. To our right lies the dark waters of Lake Pepa, partially frozen with spider web patterns cracked across the surface.
A radio sounds: It’s Daniel Velásquez or ‘Che’ Dani, park ranger and all around huemul expert, giving us his location. Saucedo kills the engine; we grab our packs and begin the trek by foot. At one point, Saucedo pushes aside some beech leaves to reveal fresh huemul tracks—a very good sign.
A mile or so later, Che Dani appears atop a hill, smiling down at us. Although we’ve only spoken a few times, my impression is that he’s inseparable from the huemules he guards. Observant, gentle and with light green eyes, Che Dani often seems tuned into something unreachable to the rest of us.
The group breaks into pairs and I stick with Che Dani. We head to a shadier section and he waves a large antennae slowly from side to side. A few quiet beeps sound from the receptor at his waist and then a loud beep to the left. We continue on, and then he stops and holds out his hand.
“There they are,” he says.
Against the muted greens, browns and yellows of the landscape, the group of four would be easy to miss. This is part of their enigma—the ability to converge, blend and disappear into their surroundings.
“Now you can take pictures,” says Che Dani.
I take out my camera, barely breathing, and focus on the adult male closest to me.
Che Dani writes down dates and numbers in a small notebook. I ask for their names and he ticks them off: Pascual, male (born on the 25th of December, collar), Engaño, male (“Deception,” no collar) Pepa, female (named after the lake, no collar) and No me olvides (“Don’t forget me”) a baby of 5 months. I ask why he chose that particular name.
He smiles and says, “So that people don’t forget about the huemules.”
This morning, our goal is to put a collar on Pepa. When Saucedo arrives he prepares the dart gun, aims and shoots. A loud popping noise sounds and she sprints off. Che Dani follows her while we hang back; he’ll radio when the anesthesia sets in.
Thirty minutes later, we’re crouched around Pepa. She’s blindfolded and Che Dani holds her head up by her large ears. I’m close enough to smell her, a deep, musky scent mixed with wet soil. When capturing and collaring a wild animal, obtaining the maximum amount of info is key: Che Dani measures her ears, face, body length and width; Saucedo checks her temperature and heart rate; Rivera places the collar comfortably around her neck.
Blood and skin samples are also taken, weight is logged, and oxygen levels are monitored. An hour goes by quickly and soon the anesthesia will wear off. Saucedo motions for me to come closer.
“Touch her,” he says. “Take advantage of the moment.”
Pepa’s fur has a brittle texture like broom bristles and the tips are a deep golden color. I part the hair with my fingers and discover silvery roots and pale skin. Despite her impressive size, there’s almost no fat on her body; I can easily feel her ribs and spine. If there is magic in the world, it is in this moment, connecting with a wild animal in a wild place. I remove my hands and tufts of hair float away—Pepa’s shedding her winter coat for the upcoming spring. I ask for a picture:
An antagonist drug is injected. Awake now, Pepa licks her lips and makes guttural sounds. We step back and Che Dani removes the blindfold. She darts off, but again, not very far.
“You hardly ever see four huemules at one time. It’s pretty rare. Or am I lying?” Saucedo asks.
“No, it’s not common,” Che Dani agrees.
Pepa turns and looks at us. She shakes her head, aware, but not disturbed by the collar. With small, slow steps, she heads in the direction of Lake Cochrane, illuminated by the midday sun.