A rare and beautiful sight, the Southern Patagonian huemul deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus) is an icon of Patagonia Park and of Chile. A native species, the huemul is Chile’s national animal, found on the country’s coat of arms, alongside the Andean condor. Despite its high level of recognition, the huemul is classified as endangered by the IUCN, with a global population of less than 1,500 individuals. With 10% of these remaining deer residing within Patagonia Park’s boundaries, Conservacion Patagonica has made huemul deer recovery the cornerstone of its wildlife program.
One of three species of native Chilean deer, the huemul can grow to be up to 1 meter (3.2 ft) high at the withers, with weights reaching up to 90 kg (198 lbs.). The deer’s geographical range is exclusive to Southern Chile and Argentina. With so few animals left, the species currently lives in isolated, fragmented areas of Andean Patagonia beech forest and Patagonian steppe.
Through years of monitoring and study, the Patagonia Park team has learned that huemul tend to inhabit beech forest and brush environments, sometimes venturing to rocky terrain and steep slopes. These areas provide a greater diversity of plant species to feed on and a lower risk of predation. The huemul deer has a wide and varied diet but it is selective, focusing on the buds and tender leaves of herbs, shrubs, bushes, and trees. Because of this habit, the huemul is considered a browser species, unlike the guanaco, which is a grazer, feeding on a larger volume of grasses and other plants that grow close to the ground.
Both male and female huemul are territorial, forming small family groups. Our monitoring data shows that huemul live in small, divided areas and tend to restrict their family groups to a few individuals. The deer have a gestation period of seven to eight months and only one fawn is typically born per pregnancy. This low birth rate, combined with the threats of habitat loss and modification, disease and competition as a result of livestock ranching, poaching, dog attacks, invasive species and infrastructure encroachment, has caused Chile’s huemul population to become increasingly vulnerable.
By removing livestock, reviving ecosystems and opening up habitat, the Patagonia Park wildlife restoration project provides huemul the high-quality habitat they need to recover. Moving forward, our team plans to continue to monitor these animals and their various potential threats in order to ensure the huemul have a long future in the region.
For more information on Patagonia Park’s huemul monitoring and restoration program, please see our Wildlife Bulletin on the topic: http://www.conservacionpatagonica.org/boletines/Wildlife_Bulletin_01.pdf