What are the goals of this project?
In this pilot rewilding project we will introduce six castrated male guanacos into a small espinal in order to study their interactions with the espino tree. We expect guanacos to browse on espino branches, and to eat their seeds. We think this will have two effects: the espinos will show “compensatory growth” and grow larger; and the seeds that have passed through the guanaco gut will show a higher rate of germination. Our primary goal is to measure these responses, and to determine at what stocking density of guanacos they are optimized.
Over the long term, we expect increased espino reproduction and canopy cover to translate into greater herbaceous biomass, more water retention in the soil, an increase in biodiversity, and more efficient livestock (sheep and cattle) production in espinals.
We also need to start thinking about how to scale up this project. That means considering how to incentivize and support local landowners to put guanacos in their espinals, finding long term funding, developing and disseminating outreach materials, and forming local partnerships with conservationists, guanaco wool artisans, ranchers, landowners, and others.
Unlike many rewilding or reintroduction projects, we are studying the ecological interaction between the guanacos and their habitat, and we are also researching the socio-political context and public attitudes towards guanaco rewilding. Understanding these two aspects from the beginning of the project guarantee a locally acceptable and sustainable project.
Why is this research important?
Rewilding is a bold new paradigm that involves the reintroduction or introduction of megafauna to achieve ecological restoration towards a culturally meaningful baseline, whether pre-human or historical. Guanaco rewilding in espinal is the only project in South America, to our knowledge, that integrates research on the restoration ecology outcomes and social aspects of a megafaunal reintroduction.
Guanacos can act as habitat restoration tools as well as conservation policy tools. Promoting restoration of the espinal silvopastoral system could provide a new model of conservation in Chile, focusing on Chile’s cultural landscapes, and on developing a local model of sustainable, biodiversity-friendly agriculture.
The espinal, although covering a large proportion of central Chile, is considered a marginal, degraded habitat. Its biodiversity and cultural legacy are widely undervalued. Because it is not considered native forest, it does not qualify for many conservation programs; because it is not considered high-yield agriculture, it is frequently converted to monocultural vinyards or avocado plantations. Novel approaches to conservation, restoration, and silvopastoral management in espinal are urgently required.
How will the funds be used?
We need a good fence! One of the biggest conservation challenges in Chile today are feral dogs. Feral dogs are known to eat guanacos, which don’t seem to have good defenses against dog packs. To keep dogs out, we need a fence that has a subterranean barrier. We also want to keep the guanacos in, and they can jump. So we also need a high fence and an electric wire. This turns out to be very expensive. We already have about $9000 in the budget for our fence, but we have a $1500 shortfall. We want to get this money as soon as possible so that the experiments can go forward.
Stretch goals: Any extra money (first extra $2000) will go towards developing some very nice professional quality outreach for the public in Chile and everywhere. We would like to make a website with environmental education material and updates on our research. We would also like to produce some posters and booklets for school children who do workshops at the reserve where the guanacos are being reintroduced.
There are also a lot of cool measurements that we could be doing (with any additional money). For now, our budget covers the basic stuff we need to measure to test our predictions. But with enough money, we might decide to analyze guanaco fecal samples, or study espino physiology under herbivory. We are also hoping to convince at least two other sites with guanacos to collaborate with us. That might also involve some extra fieldwork per diems.