Torres del Paine National Park and the port city of Puerto Natales are located in Última Esperanza province in the Magallanes Region of Chile. Última Esperanza translates to “Last Hope”, an expression coined by Spanish explorer Juan Ladrilleros in 1557. After months of searching for the Magellan Strait, Ladrilleros exclaimed that Última Esperanza Sound, as it is now called, was his “last hope” to reach the strait. 

Before the arrival of Europeans, nomadic indigenous groups, like the Kawésqar, navigated the region’s freezing fjords and skilled hunters, like the Aónikenk, roamed its windy pampas. Historically, harsh environmental conditions in Patagonia have pushed humans to their “Last Hope” survival efforts, yet the region’s strong inhabitants have always found ingenious ways to endure. From skilled seafarers to resourceful livestock owners, the cultural heritage of Chilean Patagonia is rich with triumph, grit, and resourcefulness. Patagonia’s people embody willpower and adaptation and have demonstrated their resilience through the centuries.

However, fast-forward to the 21st century, and the human impact in the region has now come with detrimental costs, particularly, to the huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus), also known as the South Andean Deer. Almost exclusively found in southern Patagonia in Argentina and Chile, the huemul is currently endangered and is found on the IUCN’s red list (Black-Decima et al., 2016). An MOU signed by Chile & Argentina in 2010 set the framework for binational actions to conserve the huemul and ultimately prevent its continued population decline. Currently, there are estimated to be fewer than 1,500 huemuls left between the two countries, and fewer than 1,000 in Chile alone (Berger et al., 2020) — a grave prospect for Chile’s national animal. 

Herbivores whose diets consist of as many as 70 different plant species, huemuls have found refuge in the dense Southern Beech (Lenga) forests and rocky, mountainous shrublands found throughout Torres del Paine National Park. However, even in a protected area like Torres del Paine, their conservation has become increasingly threatened by habitat fragmentation and disease, primarily due to two major human-induced threats: raising livestock and tourism (Briceño et al 2012, Vila et al 2019).

The Impact of Raising Livestock on the Huemul

Often, when visitors think of Patagonia, the visual of a cowboy (gaucho) comes to mind. These descendants of the first Europeans to arrive in southern Patagonia built the foundation for local boom economies based on meatpacking, livestock production, and wool. Even today, many of these families maintain the customs and traditions of their ancestors. The vast pampas surrounding Torres del Paine remain privately owned by these families, most of whom continue to raise livestock. 

Near the Western portion and Serrano entrance of Torres del Paine National Park, three local families oversee their estancias (ranches) and livestock. Separated only by a shallow portion of the Serrano River and a mostly dilapidated fence, the human-wildlife conflict between the horses and cattle owned by these families and Torres del Paine’s biodiversity has increasingly grown (Kusch et al 2016). The fence along this 4km route has become entirely dysfunctional, broken down in many parts by livestock owners and their animals. Poor community education on huemul conservation, unenforced policies to prohibit livestock from entering the park, fence destruction, and a lack of effective monitoring have exacerbated the number of livestock now found in the National Park. 

Without any meaningful intervention, the consequences of livestock in huemul habitats could prove devastating. In nearby Bernard O’Higgins National Park, transmission of a rare foot disease from livestock to huemuls proved catastrophic, resulting in the death of at least 9 of the 24 that contracted the disease (Briceño 2013). Huemuls have been difficult to conserve in many national parks because of their often isolated and remote habitats, many of which lack the monitoring tools and access to effectively understand immediate threats to their survival (Kusch et al 2016). 

The Impact of Tourism on the Huemul

This situation is further compounded by tourism, which has seen a boom in recent years, especially in Torres del Paine (Silva et al 2011, Kusch et al 2016). Patagonia has transformed into one of the most sought-after adventure tourism destinations on Earth. Torres del Paine and its more than 250km of trekking circuits have become Chile’s star tourism attraction, now welcoming backpackers and luxury travelers from every corner of the world. From its soaring granite spires to plunging glacial valleys, the magnificence of Torres del Paine is best experienced in person.

Declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1978 and considered by many as the 8th wonder of the world, 304,947 people flocked to visit Torres del Paine in 2019 (CONAF, 2020). This figure represents a 30% increase from 2015 and is expected to continue to exponentially rise following the return of pre-pandemic travel levels. The World Tourism and Travel Council (WTTC) identified in a report on the future of the industry that the pandemic has shifted travelers’ focus to nature and outdoor destinations.

Travel will largely be “kickstarted by the less risk averse travelers and early adopters, from adventure travelers and backpackers to surfers and mountain climbers,” the report says. As reported anecdotally by many Legacy Fund partners in early 2022, Torres del Paine is already seeing this rapid return of adventure travel (WTTC and Oliver Wyman, 2020).

In nearby Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine centered tourism generates around 6,700 direct jobs for its approximately 20,000 inhabitants, roughly 25% of the workforce. Another 10,850 indirect jobs are estimated to depend on tourism to Torres del Paine in the rest of the region and country (Valverde, 2020).

While tourism has brought economic benefits to the area, intensive use, overcrowding, and gaps in education have placed a significant strain on the region’s unique flora and fauna, aging infrastructure, and limited trail system (Vela-Ruiz & Repetto 2017). Since 1985, three man-made fires, all started by tourists, have ravaged almost 1/5 of the park’s area, including many native Lenga tree forests (Vidal 2012), drastically reducing and altering habitats critical to huemuls, who thrive in high mountain forests. Insufficient public resources and a relatively novice civil society have also widened this gap, necessitating a multi-stakeholder response to conservation and infrastructure challenges (Barrena et al. 2019). 

Crowded one-way trails and an outdated trail management plan have stifled park rangers’ capacity to effectively carry out trail maintenance and conservation efforts. The negative impacts of tourism are most obvious along the park’s most famous site, the Base of the Towers Trail, which is also the climax of the world-renowned ‘W’ Circuit. Originally a collection of cattle and horse trails informally linked together by visitors, the ‘W’ and more specifically the Base of the Towers Trail were never meant to support an average of 1,200 daily hikers.

In fact, the ‘trail’ was never designed at all, much less in a manner consistent with other world-class or sustainably built hiking routes. Increasing visitation, lackluster trail management, and serious erosion have led to an emblematic trail with increasingly worrisome risks for visitors, and even more dangerous environmental implications (Vela-Ruiz 2017, Repetto & Cabello 2015). 

Base of the Towers Trail in Torres del Paine National Park, jagged mountain peaks with green pool of water in the foreground

Base of the Towers Trail

While the first ⅔ of the Base of the Towers Trail traverses privately-owned land, the final approach, lookout point, and most challenging portion of the trail passes through Torres del Paine National Park which is managed by CONAF, Chile’s National Forestry Corporation. On portions of the trail, habitat encroachment and resulting flora loss is extreme. “Braiding”, or side trails created by visitors avoiding flooding on the main trail, creates the visual of as many as 19 different side paths in some sections of the trail. As tourism increases, native flora and fauna will be pushed out of their habitats unless a sustainable, well-maintained trail is established (Repetto & Cabello 2015, Farrell & Marion 2002). 

The Base of the Towers trail culminates in a spectacular viewpoint perched upon a moraine, where three granite towers piercing through a periglacial terrain awe visitors. This cold, high mountain environment and its adjacent Lenga forests provide an ideal habitat for the huemul. Along the current trail, information pertaining to the nearby huemul habitat and its needed conservation is nonexistent, leaving most visitors completely unaware of the huemul’s presence, let alone its status as an endangered species. With an ever-growing quantity of tourists arriving to see the Towers, mitigating the threats posed by tourism and its infrastructure are paramount to conservation of the huemul. Specifically, threats posed by tourists include (Chisleanschi, 2017):

  • Forest fires caused by negligence (Vidal 2012)
  • Habitat degradation resulting from destructive side trails (Repetto & Cabello 2015)
  • Uncontrolled noise pollution resulting from a crowded, one-way trail (Cabello 2017)
  • Inadequate interpretation to inform visitors on the huemul (Vela-Ruiz 2017)

In a national park with as much visitation as Torres del Paine, the importance of bold conservation action and awareness raising to conserve the huemul has never been greater. While the region is rich in cultural and natural heritage, community education efforts to highlight the huemul have been virtually nonexistent. Actions or attempts to resolve conflict with families that own livestock entering the national park have also not been successful, resulting in a problem that only continues to worsen.

Addressing Human-Wildlife Conflict

The Torres del Paine Legacy Fund, a nonprofit program of the Center for Responsible Travel, is well positioned to support huemul conservation in Torres del Paine National Park and address the human-wildlife conflict. With various human-induced threats to the huemul’s conservation, the Legacy Fund seeks to address the above-mentioned issues and achieve the following the interpretive panels are installed on trails located near the huemul habitat where awareness is most urgently required, given the number of sightings of the species in the area and/or the number of visitors to the areas through a three-pronged approach: 

  1. Prevent huemul habitat fragmentation and improve visitor management by sustainably restructuring the public portion of the Base of the Towers Trail with interpretive information and a visitor stewardship program. 
  2. Reduce threats posed by livestock in Torres del Paine by installing a 4km wildlife-friendly fence in the Serrano sector of the park, monitoring the habitat for huemul presence, and securing public-private buy-in to prevent ongoing threats from livestock.
  3. Engage surrounding communities & stakeholders to build awareness and create sustained collaborative action for huemul conservation in Torres del Paine.  

The Legacy Fund expects that these objectives, and the numerous activities aimed at achieving these objectives (highlighted in the following section), will produce the following outcomes for the conservation of the huemul: 

  • Better protected huemul habitats in Torres del Paine National Park.
  • Decreased risk of huemul habitat fragmentation in the Torres campground area.
  • Decreased risk of disease transmission from livestock to the huemul.
  • A shared commitment between CONAF and estancia families to reduce threats posed by livestock.
  • A cohort of young Chilean stewards with the conservation and trail knowledge to support other protected areas and build future livelihoods in fields related to national park management.
  • Improved visitor awareness and interpretation of cultural, natural, and protected area heritage.
  • A safer, more educational, and more immersive visitor experience to the Base of the Towers.
  • A stewardship program that allows visitors to participate in trail maintenance & conservation.
  • A tourism value chain that upholds best practices in huemul conservation.
  • Heightened community & visitor awareness, sustained conservation actions, and stakeholder commitment to conserving the huemul in Torres del Paine. 

Leveraging Cross-Sector Partnerships

To accomplish this undertaking, the Legacy Fund will leverage strategic cross-sector partnerships and years of hands-on expertise in Torres del Paine National Park. Since 2014, the Legacy Fund has implemented impact projects in Patagonia with a focus on ensuring a sustainable future for Torres del Paine and its surrounding communities. With an on-the-ground Director that has significant experience in regional conservation projects, research, and cross-sector collaboration, the Legacy Fund will engage multiple civil-society, public sector, and private stakeholders to create a sustainable solution to threats posed by tourism and livestock.

Since its inception, the Legacy Fund has achieved proven success through this collaborative approach. As part of a unique working agreement signed with CONAF’s Magallanes Regional Office in 2018, the Legacy Fund acts as the premier stewardship organization for the national park. The Legacy Fund works with CONAF to provide technical and financial assistance to respond to park priority areas, both within park boundaries and other protected areas in the Magallanes region of Chile. Since 2019, the Legacy Fund has worked with CONAF and Reserva Las Torres, the estancia (ranch) that manages the privately-owned part of the Base of the Towers Trail, to ideate new, sustainable trail designs, denote areas on the existing trail requiring restoration, and build consensus on the importance of a Base of the Towers realignment and trail project.

Additionally, since 2016, the Legacy Fund has worked with Conservation VIP, a US-based nonprofit, to finance and construct a new, sustainable trail on a different part of the ‘W’ Circuit. While the Legacy Fund managed all tread construction, design, and logistics, Conservation VIP managed bridge and boardwalk financing and construction. The two organizations will collaborate again on trail construction for this trail – though Conservation VIP will focus more on the private sector portion of the trail.

The Legacy Fund will also leverage the knowledge and expertise of the broader Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) team, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of tourism. For nearly two decades, CREST has assisted governments, development agencies, local communities, policy makers, tourism businesses, nonprofits, and international agencies in finding solutions to critical issues confronting tourism and carrying out interdisciplinary research to promote more responsible tourism policies and practices.

Over the past four years alone, some of the initiatives and achievements that the Legacy Fund has realized through this multi-stakeholder collaborative approach have included:

  • Building and maintaining 10km of trail, boardwalk, and bridges to ensure visitor safety, minimize erosion and destructive side trails, and avoid disruptions to sensitive habitats, particularly in fragile wetland areas.
  • Mobilizing 350 Chilean volunteers who contributed 12,500 hours on trail stewardship and conservation efforts in Torres del Paine. This allowed many volunteers to experience their national treasure for the first time, expanding the community of advocates for the protection of Patagonia’s public lands.
  • Eradicating 3,000m2 of invasive species from the park’s visitor center area.
  • Designing and installing four interpretive sites to enhance visitor understanding of the park’s biodiversity.
  • Establishing the region’s first recycling system in collaboration with the municipality of Puerto Natales in 2015. Recycling increased by 600% in 2016, diverting over 250,000kg of waste from the city’s overcrowded landfill.
  • Collecting monitoring data on the health of over 50,000 reforested lenga trees in fire-affected areas of the park, enhancing CONAF’s ecological restoration program and efforts to improve its reforestation processes.

Such achievements, of course, come with their fair share of lessons learned, and the Legacy Fund will utilize these past experiences to ensure all activities are executed with best practices in mind. In past trail-building efforts, the Legacy Fund team greatly improved its skills in trail grading, sustainability, restoration & recuperation of unused trail, design, and construction — giving the organization a unique position as trail-building experts in the region. Over the past 10 years, only two organizations — the Legacy Fund and Conservation VIP — have actually carried out trail maintenance work in Torres del Paine. Logistics to transport materials and tools have been the most significant hurdle to advancing on sustainable trail construction, but with years of experience, the Legacy Fund feels confident in addressing logistical hurdles in advance to finish the proposed deliverables in the project period. Establishing a clear timeline of material logistics will allow for an on-time completion of the trail. 

When working with local actors, especially those with more informal levels of education, dedicated time and patience must be taken to build relationships, which then must be paired with concrete actions to earn trust and respect. While CONAF management holds an existing-but-fragile relationship with the three families involved in the huemul-livestock conflict, the Legacy Fund sees the restoration of a wildlife-friendly fence as a key action to establishing improved relations, as it represents a commitment on the public institution’s end to take efforts seriously and work towards mending the fragile relationship. 

In past projects, the Legacy Fund has learned that involving cross-sector actors in workshops goes a long way in achieving buy-in and promoting a project’s legitimacy. By creating spaces for open dialogue, developing community-informed action items, and hosting Q&As with experts, the Legacy Fund believes this project will catapult the region toward long-term huemul conservation.

hiker in yellow jacket walking on boardwalk away from camera towards Chilean mountain range

Project Objectives

This project is divided into three objectives, all with an aim to achieve a holistic conservation goal: Conserve the huemul by improving visitor management, advancing community education and engagement, and mitigating the livestock conflict in Torres del Paine National Park. The Torres del Paine Legacy Fund seeks to address root socio-cultural and infrastructure issues that drive the underlying threats posed by tourism and livestock. 

The Legacy Fund, an official implementing partner of CONAF Magallanes will work to accomplish the following three objectives. 

  1. Prevent huemul habitat fragmentation and improve visitor management by sustainably restructuring the public portion of the Base of the Towers Trail with interpretive information and a visitor stewardship program. 
  2. Reduce threats posed by livestock in Torres del Paine by installing a 4km wildlife-friendly fence in the Serrano sector of the park, monitoring the habitat for huemul presence, and securing public-private buy-in to prevent ongoing threats from livestock.
  3. Engage surrounding communities & stakeholders to build awareness and create sustained collaborative action for huemul conservation in Torres del Paine.

Though the threats facing the huemul related to livestock and tourism pose serious consequences, the Legacy Fund believes this project can shift the paradigm so these threats may become vehicles for improved conservation, sustainability, and education. Through these collaborative efforts and actions, we hope to finally achieve the Last Hope solution for protecting the huemuls of Última Esperanza and Torres del Paine.