Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Preserving Torres del Paine

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Preserving Torres del Paine

Article excerpt

Torres del Paine, probably the most famous national park in South America, is experiencing a tourist boom. Jovito Gonzalez, the park's chief ranger who has worked there since 1966, says the number of visitors has grown from a mere five hundred a year in the early 1970s to over twenty-one thousand in 1993. "And by April this year there had already been a 34 percent increase over last year. Tourism is increasing at a very rapid rate but, fortunately, the area itself has the capacity to bring in even more people," Gonzalez explains.

Despite its frequently harsh conditions--howling winds and unpredictable fluctuations in weather--combined with its remoteness--twenty-four hours by plane and car from Washington, D.C.,--more than 70 percent of the visitors are foreigners. They come from Germany, Argentina, the U.S., France, England, Israel, and several dozen other countries and include back-packers, hikers, mountaineers, campers, kayakers, canoers, and nature lovers. Many visitors arrive from Puerto Natales, fifty-five miles to the south, by paved road. Puerto Natales is 160 miles northwest of Punta Arenas, the capital of Region XII.

This year, for the first time, the park is open during winter (April-September), when despite the snow, the temperatures usually only drop to the mid-teens and the relentless winds subside. An excellent new five-star hotel, Explora, is catering to upscale nature tourists.

Scientists have also been drawn to Torres del Paine. "For biologists it's like going to heaven," says Dr. William Franklin, an Iowa State University biologist who for the past fifteen years has carried out research in the park. "It's well managed, has a very high concentration and diversity of wildlife, a magnificent backdrop--snow-covered Andean peaks and iceberg-strewn lakes. It's pristine and wild. The summers are not overly hot, and the winters are not that cold. It's a very special place."

Since the mid-1970s, Franklin and his research team have been tracking, tagging, and putting radio collars on guanacos, a wild relative of domestic llamas, and on Patagonia pumas, one of the largest wild cats. The guanaco population "has increased tremendously," from a few hundred in the 1970s to some twenty-five hundred to three thousand today largely because, Franklin says, domestic animals--cattle, sheep, and horses--were excluded from the park and poaching is very rare. Now the guanaco population is beginning to decline slightly as pumas, their chief predators, have increased in numbers. Franklin estimates there are ten to twenty-five pumas inside the park, one of the highest concentrations in the Americas. He credits the pumas with "helping to establish an equilibrium between the wildlife and the environment."

Franklin, whose research has been supported by the OAS, National Wildlife Federation, National Geographic, and individual donations, is the only scientist doing long-term studies in the park. His students and fellow researchers also have studied the habitats of foxes and other mammals, waterfowl, and plant communities. He plans to expand his modest Patagonia Wildlife Research Station located near the park entrance into a "world-class" research facility.

Every November Franklin takes tourists on a seventeen-day scientific expedition during which they capture and tag baby guanacos--known as chulengos--and help collect data. …

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