Photo: Sol de Mayo, Rick Ridgeway
© 2001 The Patagonia Land Trust
Much of the coast of eastern Patagonia resembles that of Mexico's Baja California 50 years ago. But the ecology is much different and the chain of life more vulnerable. Here, the Atlantic Ocean forms a cold sea river - the Malvinas (Falklands) Current - rich in nutrients and plankton, with large schools of fish and clouds of invertebrates. These nutrients support southern right whales, dolphins, sea lions, fur seals, elephant seals, cormorants and Magellanic penguins - even occasional leopard seals stop by to feed on inattentive penguins. Although most of the coast is undeveloped, the few towns have quadrupled in size over the past several years. Oil spills from exploration and oil transport have reduced penguin populations, and over fishing threatens biodiversity and the food chain of the whole marine ecosystem.
The Andes block westerly storms, creating a rain shadow that encourages a rich grassland ecology along the range's eastern slope. Set against a backdrop of glaciers, granite spires and snow-fluted peaks, the valleys are deep in emerald sedge and waves of wind-blown, waist-high grasses, and are inhabited by puma, foxes, herds of guanacos and flocks of rheas. The majority of these grasslands are threatened by overgrazing. The valleys are cropped to lawn height, the hills marred by sheet erosion and the indigenous wildlife replaced by hundreds of thousands of sheep. Once sheep are removed, the Andean grasslands can be restored as a homeland for indigenous wildlife including guanacos, pumas, upland geese, black-necked swans, Andean condors and the endangered huemul deer. The Patagonian steppe, extending inland from the Atlantic coast, receives little rainfall and has been so heavily overgrazed that desertification of the soil is taking place. Indigenous wildlife includes puma, pampas cats, guanacos, and red and gray foxes.
Southern Beech Forests
The subantarctic forests of evergreen southern beech, threatened with extinction, occupy a 40-mile-wide strip along the base of the Andes. They extend, in pockets, 1,200 miles from the Province of Neuquén south to Tierra del Fuego. Two indigenous species - the lenga and ñire trees - dominate the forest, which serves as home to pumas, guanacos, southern river otters, geese, Andean condors and huemul deer. Logging and forest clearing have been extensive in the region's northerly latitudes, and now threaten the southern forests of lenga and ñire. Both are slow-growing trees that could take decades to recover.
© Patagonia Land Trust How You Can Help
Patagonia Land Trust (PLT) is concentrating its initial preservation efforts in three bioregions: that border the Andes and the southern beech forests. PLT is targeting large landholdings that can be purchased inexpensively without major restoration costs, and that need rest and respite from overgrazing, hunting and deforestation.