We carried out an experiment to understand the effect of reintroduced guanacos (Lama guanicoe, the wild relative of llamas) on the growth of the espino tree (Acacia caven), a common tree in the central Chilean espinal silvopastoral system. The guanacos browsed on the trees and stimulated growth. The guanacos also had several unexpected ecosystem functions in the espinal habitat. Reintroducing them to restore central Chilean woodlands seems very promising.
About This ProjectGuanacos, the wild cousins of llamas, lived throughout Chile until about 500 years ago. Central Chile is a mediterranean climate biodiversity hotspot, with many endemic plant and animal species. This is a pilot project to rewild the "espinal" savannas of central Chile with guanacos. We expect guanacos to have positive ecological interactions with the main tree in espinal, the espino. Guanacos in espinal should restore this habitat, raise the profile of local biodiversity, and facilitate sustainable livestock production.
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What is the context of this research?
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.
What is the significance of this project?
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.
What are the goals of the project?
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.
$9535 Perimeter fence (surrounding 0.5 ha) and installation
$462 Electric fence and installation
$500 Removal of existing fence posts
Total: USD $10497
We already have $9000 for this project and we just need $1500 to complete the building of a fence.
Stretch goals: Any additional funds will be used to develop educational outreach about guanacos, Chilean nature, and our research, for locals and the world.
Meet the Team
Dr. Meredith Root-Bernstein has a PhD in Ecology and is currently a post doctoral research fellow at the Department of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, and at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She contributes to teaching the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at Oxford, and researches small and large herbivore ecology and social science aspects of conservation.
Collaborators on this project include Dr. Cristian Bonacic, a camelid conservation expert leading the Fauna Australis conservation group at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile; Dr. Alfredo Olivares, an espinal management expert in the Agronomy Department of the Universidad de Chile; and Dr. Fabian Jaksic, a leading community ecologist in the Ecology Department of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.
I am an interdisciplinary conservation scientist with an interest in community ecology, animal behavior, anthropology of human-environment relationships, and policy. I follow both a socio-ecological systems and a biocultural approach. My long-term projects include the restoration and rewilding of the "espinal" Chilean silvopastoral system, and multifunctional community-led wetland conservation in the Po Delta, Italy.
I am also involved in a number of interdisciplinary collaborations linking natural history, biology, anthropology and art, with the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene group, of which I was formerly a member.
As part of my research on conservation in Chile, I am currently working on two projects in addition to this one. One is funded by the National Geographic Society and focuses on building local capacity to conserve rare frogs. I am also starting a project on the conservation and management decisions of farmers in central Chile.
I grew up in Michigan where I enjoyed all the animals in our backyard. Since then I have lived in the UK, Chile, Denmark, and I now live in Paris, France.
Additional InformationEste proyecto piloto propone estudiar la relación ecológica entre el guanaco (Lama guanicoe) y el espino (Acacia caven) en el sistema silvopastoral de Chile central conocido como espinal. Esperamos que los guanacos tendrán un efecto positivo sobre los espinos, promoviendo la restauración del espinal, y introduciendo uno nuevo marco de conservación de paisajes culturales en Chile, donde se puede producir ganado de alta calidad y proteger la biodiversidad endémica al mismo tiempo.
Necesitamos una reja de buena calidad para proteger los guanacos de perros vagos, que son capazes de comerlos. Faltamos alrededor de 700 CLP en el presupuesto para pagar la reja. Contribuciones adicionales serán utilizados para producir educación ambiental para lugareños y el mundo entero.
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