Patagonia dreaming

Review of

Act III in Patagonia: People and Wildlife

Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005, 320 pp.

There once was a world so lush with life that colonies of animals stretched as far as the eye could see. Of course this is not news. We’ve had glimpses of this world before, in descriptions of the vast bison herds of the pre-settler Great Plains and in accounts of stocks of cod so plentiful off New England waters that early explorers had the sense they could walk across the water on their backs. These are images of a world we consider long gone. Yet a fragment of that world exists even today, in the remote reaches of Patagonia. In Act III in Patagonia, William Conway transports us there, breathing life into scientific descriptions of the wildlife of the Southern Cone and in so doing animating the images we have of how the world must once have looked.

But even this rich land is now in danger. Where once there may have been 50 million guanacos (the New World version of the camel), there are now only about half a million. Other species of the steppes have declined, some even more precipitously. Coastal and marine life has declined as well. Act III in Patagonia chronicles this decline and examines the daunting conservation challenges ahead.

The book is organized into three sections: part historical accounting, part travelogue, and part natural history essay and conservation epic. Conway, senior conservationist and former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, begins by describing the pristine Southern Cone of millennia gone by. Herds of guanaco were so numerous that the wildebeest herds of Africa pale in comparison, and they shared the arid landscape with horses that had evolved on the continent and with vast numbers of flightless birds such as the rhea. The 2,000-mile Argentine coastline of high cliffs and shining pebble beaches supported huge colonies of sea lions, fur and elephant seals, terns, cormorants, penguins, and other colonial species. But Act I in Patagonia, even though it spanned thousands of years, is described relatively briefly, for little is known about either the ecology of the region or the indigenous peoples who shared this magnificent landscape with the animals. What is known is that the marvelous bounty of Patagonia was soon discovered by the Europeans (Act II), who in decades started to undo what thousands of years of evolution had produced.

Although the interior of the Southern Cone is sparsely populated by settlers and the coast remains relatively pristine, humans have made their mark in dramatic and unsettling ways. The story of the guanaco, which Conway considers an indicator species—the canary in a coal mine whose fate suggests the trends in the entire steppe ecosystem— is a case in point. The 95% decrease in its population correlates with a rise in the numbers of sheep, now estimated at 43 million. The voracious grazing of sheep has caused the degradation of 60% of the rangelands. Guanaco are also being hunted to reduce their perceived competition with the growing population of livestock.

The unregulated growth of sheep farming in Patagonia has had consequences for other species as well. The populations of sheep predators such as foxes and pumas have boomed, which in turn has led to dramatic reductions in the populations of native species such as Darwin’s rhea and the giant Mara mouse. The former has declined by roughly 85% in only 10 years; the latter has declined even more dramatically, though actual population numbers are unknown. To add insult to injury and underscore the sometimes hopelessly careless nature of humans, the endangered Mara mouse is also hunted as dog food. “Much wildlife is seen as competitive, as a pest, a danger or game,” Conway writes, “[and] ranchers seem to dwell in a permanent state of ecological ignorance and denial.”


Declines have been steep for avian populations as well. Flamingos living and breeding in the highly specialized habitat of the altiplano (a high-altitude area shared by Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina) suffer from egg poaching, and the burrowing parrot continues to be hunted not for food but because it is considered a crop pest. In fact, the Argentine government officially designated it a pest in 1984 and began a widespread poisoning program. Although this was soon discontinued amid protests from the budding conservation community, the pest stigma has stuck in the minds of many local people. Patagonia’s wonderful Magellan penguins are also in a precarious position, because they must travel farther and farther to find fish.

Unsustainable commercial fishing is also increasing, despite recently adopted regulations. The reduction in fish is affecting the numbers of marine mammals such as seals and sea lions, making it more difficult for these creatures to rebound after a long period of mass hunting.

Conservation challenges

The Act III in the book title refers to the new era of conservation efforts. The big challenge facing conservationists is that the people living in Patagonia are generally content with their current lifestyles and practices, often wary of the animals, and uneducated about the potential value of ecotourism. Conway writes: “Today, many of the strange assemblages of wild animals live in frontier-like associations with settlers, who both use them and are unsettled by them. Most of these people are economic immigrants with no history on the land or with its wild creatures.” Thus, hunting continues, and this, in conjunction with sheep farming, fishing, and oil and gas drilling, has created a situation that would be easy to call hopeless.

Yet Conway is brimming with optimism; hope is the leitmotif that runs through all of Act III. Still, I confess that I found it hard to muster a similar faith that this beautiful land would ever be restored to its former glory. Indeed, I found it hard not to believe that Patagonia would instead follow the usual trajectory toward increasingly unsustainable use of resources and inevitable conflict. Where Conway sees hope in the growing grassroots environmental movement in Argentina and the adoption of the Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan, I see the unresolved problem of spreading sheep farms destroying natural habitats, introduced species affecting vulnerable indigenous ones, and massive and largely unregulated fisheries that are both wasteful and destructive. Where Conway sees dedicated individuals (many of whom have been supported by Conway’s organization), I see the seemingly insurmountable problems of rampant government mismanagement and corruption. Conway looks at the dramatic declines in populations of various animals and sees hope in the fact that only one species, the Falklands fox, has actually become extinct. I suspect other readers would share my inability to find too much solace in that fact, given where most of the wild species of the region seem to be headed. But then, I have never visited Patagonia. By contrast, Conway knows the place almost better than anyone, so I suppose we must give him the benefit of the doubt and try to share his hope for Patagonia’s future.

The book is filled with detail about the life histories of Patagonia’s most interesting creatures and, to a lesser extent, some of the humans on both sides of the conservation battles. These chapters are colorful and engaging, drawing the reader into a world that most of us will never see firsthand. Some of Conway’s best writing is in his descriptions of field biologists observing their research animals and the animals caught in the act of being observed. In places his writing is witty and poetic, reminiscent of the writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould and John McPhee. Personally, though, I would have liked to have seen more information on humans, because this is a book about conservation, and conservation is, after all, about changing human rather than animal behavior. It is hard to know what needs changing or how one might go about it (indeed, whether it is even feasible), without understanding what drives individual and collective human behavior. Giving his human characters more depth would have strengthened Conway’s case for optimism about future conservation efforts.

There is another reason I have for wishing that Conway had devoted more space to the life stories and personalities of conservationists. In the course of my own conservation work, I have come to believe in the paramount importance of identifying and supporting a champion to drive conservation efforts. The power of a dedicated individual in shifting public opinion and shaping public policy cannot be overstated. Yet this is sometimes overlooked (or deliberately ignored) by conservation organizations and funding agencies alike. Without the charismatic and committed hero to lead the way, the best priority-setting exercises, strategic planning efforts, and conservation management plans can lead to naught. People like elephant seal expert Claudio Campagna and penguin expert Dee Boersma are the real heroes.

Conway also puts too much emphasis on the need for further research on the decline of wildlife in Patagonia. Certainly, good science is essential for sound policymaking. Yet it is already clear that unsustainable agricultural, hunting, and fisheries policies are what need to be addressed if the threats are to be diminished. Ecological and natural history studies must continue, but policy changes should not be held up in the interim. There are policy prescriptions in the book that make great sense and could do much to avert the continued decline in wildlife: explore and develop the market for guanaco wool to allow wildlands “ranching” as an alternative to sheep farming on the steppes; expand the nascent ecotourism industry to demonstrate the high value of species currently considered nothing but pests by some of the locals; provide greater funding for surveillance and enforcement of existing protected areas, including Chile’s flamingo reserve system and Argentina’s national parks; and put into operation the well-conceived (thanks in large part to Conway himself) Coastal Zone Management Plan. Almost all these initiatives call for the establishment of more protected areas, but creating and managing these takes enormous effort and significant funding. Conway believes that many of these initiatives can be self-financing, especially by developing the ecotourism industry to its full potential. But although Patagonia may seem a wondrous place worthy of protection, this potential may not be recognized in an area beset by financial uncertainty and growing human population, and in the end conservation priorities may not be national priorities at all.

Even though I consider myself a strong advocate of protected areas in conservation, in the last analysis it seems clear that protected areas alone will not be able to stem the tide of degradation that in Patagonia, as elsewhere, is driven by human greed, competition, and ineffective governance. Conway himself quotes H. L. Mencken’s observation that seems so pertinent here: “For every complex question there is a simple answer, and it is wrong.” Yet for all their complexity, the steps toward rectifying mismanagement and corruption are obvious. This is perhaps the most poignant part of this conservation tale—not the relentless slaughter of sea lions and fur seals, nor the commonplace though accidental drowning of helpless Chaco’s tortoises in canal dams and weirs, nor the vulnerability of burrowing parrots when they frantically circle a fallen comrade and make themselves easy targets for poachers. The really sad thing is that we all know what needs to be done to save Patagonia from the fate of most of the other now-ravaged great places on earth, and yet we are somehow powerless to make it happen. Though conservationists ought to be straightforward in calling for changes in the behavior of the human species, our own animal behavior is perhaps as much a mystery as that of the enigmatic wildlife of remotest Patagonia.

Cite this Article

Agardy, Tundi. “Patagonia dreaming.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 1 (Fall 2005).

Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall 2005