The South Andean Deer, or huemul, plays such an important role in the Chilean national identity that a crowned and rearing specimen features alongside an Andean condor on the country’s national Coat of Arms.
That’s to say nothing of the importance it plays in the ecosystem of the vast verdant stretches of southern Chile, which it calls home.
But if you’ve never heard of the huemul, that’s probably because it can be found only in the mountains of far-away Patagonia – and its numbers are dwindling.
Once a common sight south of Temuco, the last few decades have seen a rapid decline in the large deer species’ population. An estimated 1,200 of the majestic deer are left, placing the species in the bracket of critically endangered.
And to make matters worse, the wary nature of the deer has meant that efforts at captive breeding programs invariably end in failure, until the Huilo Huilo Foundation came along. Designed by Director Fernando Vidal, the “semi-controlled reproduction” huemul breeding program at Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve has been a marked success.
The program was launched in April 2005 with a unique hands-off approach that tries to recreate an environment that is as close as possible to what the deers would experience in the wild.
And that approach was an immediate success – by the end of 2005, the foundation saw its first huemul birth.
The latest two births, coming in November 2011, were the 10th and 11th huemul reproduced in captivity anywhere in the world, marking the fifth generation at Huilo Huilo.
Assured of the success of its approach, the foundation is now ready to expand the program and enter its second phase - re-introduction into the wild. And it’s a phase that will require just as much initiative from the foundation.
“This has never been done before,” Vidal told La Tercera. “Because of this, we have come to a complex stage in the project where we must create new tools to find solutions to problems that we do not yet know exist.”