Saving the Taruca: Chile plans conservation effort for rare deer

The slender cousin of the iconic huemul in Patagonia is competing with farmers and ranchers for the landscape’s most precious resource: water.  

In one of the world’s most inhospitable habitats, the rare taruca deer is dwindling in population towards near extinction, leading Chile to announce an ambitious conservation plan in the northernmost regions of Arica y Parinacota (Region I) and Tarapacá (Region II).
The North Andean Deer
“This is one of the most beautiful deer species I have seen in my life,” says biologist Agustín Iriarte.
The North Andean deer, Hippocamelus antisensis, is known commonly by its Aymara and Quechua name, “taruca,” which means “small deer.” It inhabits the northern Chilean altiplano at an altitude of 8,530 to 13,615 ft (2,600 to 4,150 m) and is a relative of the iconic huemul, another native Chilean deer species, which inhabits Patagonia and appears on the Chilean coat of arms.
The taruca is unique to all other species of deer in that the entire herd follows a female leader: does, fawns and bucks alike. The species is diurnal, and feeds on lichens, moss, herbs and grasses. Little is known about its mating rituals, but breeding season occurs from June and August. Fawns are born in late summer, between February and April, but kept hidden for several weeks after birth, making them extremely difficult to spot.
Conservation efforts
The Chilean Ministry of the Environment started its conservation efforts for the beautiful deer with an educational campaign, distributing free copies of a book by Jorge Herreros de Lartundo and Walter Sielfeld Kowald titled, La Taruca, Huemul del Norte (“The Taruca, Huemul of the North”).
The book outlined the main threats to the species: rapid advancement of agriculture into the main habitat of the taruca deer; improved transportation infrastructure through the desert; and diminishing water tables due to increased irrigation.
According to Ricardo Irarrázabal of the Ministry of the Environment, the next step will be a joint conservation effort with the Chilean forestry service, Conaf: “Today, the only [conservation plan] that exists is for the huemul, but we have committed to creating one for each of the 400 species with conservation issues. The taruca is among the most urgent.”
“In order to carry out an effective conservation plan, we need scientific information to support our actions,” Irarrázabal added. He called on scientists, biologists and ecologists at local universities to help inform the effort.