From Tasmania to Santiago; Seven weeks with guanacos

Elise Dewar

 Elise and guanacos

As an early-career scientist undertaking wildlife research in Australia I have been looking to broaden my experience in different conservation programs abroad, particularly in the field of rewilding. This led me to organize a short volunteer placement with Meredith and her team at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile in Santiago.

During June and July this year I spent 7 weeks collecting behavioral data from a group of guanacos housed at the Altos de Cantillana Reserve, about an hour south of Santiago. The data I collected feeds into a broader program investigating the viability of reintroducing guanacos to the espinal region of central Chile; somewhere they have not been recorded naturally for hundreds of years.

During my time with the project I made regular observations of guanacos in a fenced area to investigate three main aspects of their behavior;

  1. The way guanacos use latrines (areas of defecation) and the potential ecological function latrines might have in the espinal landscape;
  2. The native plant species guanacos are likely to consume in this area, including seed consumption (the potential to encourage germination of particular plant species);
  3. Individual differences in behavior, response to threatening stimuli and social interactions.

During my volunteer placement I also assisted with monthly vegetation monitoring aimed at measuring the growth of Espino (Acacia caven) trees browsed by the guanacos, and was briefly involved in the early stages of a social survey that will document the perception of rural community attitudes towards guanacos in the espinal.

Overall, I found my involvement in the program to be personally and professionally rewarding in many aspects. Having the chance to intensely study an unfamiliar species was a unique learning opportunity. The past five years I have been researching mammalian carnivores such as the Tasmanian devil. To spend time watching and learning from a camelid species (of which we have none naturally occurring in Australia) was fascinating.

Meeting thought-provoking people involved in the project was another highlight of my time with the project. Not only the students and scientists who were directly involved, but a diversity of interesting people I met along the way including park rangers, park visitors, bus drivers and local residents. Having the opportunity to converse with these people whom have differing views and opinions about the guanacos was interesting and motivating.

Holistically, gaining perspective into how wildlife research is conducted in another country and the limitations and challenges faced by other institutions was eye opening. I now have an improved understanding of the importance and value in comprehensive pilot studies and broad-scale research when planning the re-introduction of a species. Alongside the theoretical and practical feasibility of the animals existing in a landscape, there are many social and political obstacles that need to be well considered.

Of course, personally getting to know the guanacos and their individual personalities was a definite highlight of my time in Chile!

I would like to thank Meredith, Matias, Francisco and Gabriel for welcoming me and giving me the opportunity to contribute to this valuable project. Thank you also for the many stimulating conversations based around the natural environment in your beautiful country, and for your patience with my limited Spanish!

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