Sat, Mar 12, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Patagonia’s penguins work their charms

Home to a large colony of Magellan penguins, Argentina’s Monte Leon National Park was created from a former sheep ranch purchased in 2001 through a donation made by Kristine Tompkins, former CEO of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company

By Thomas Watkins  /  AP, MONTE LEON NATIONAL PARK, Argentina

Doug Tompkins and his wife Kristine created Pumalin Park on their land as a wildlife preserve in Patagonia.

Photo: Bloomberg

The sign at the start of the trail was a little disconcerting: If you see a puma, don’t run. Maintain eye contact, shout loudly, raise your jacket over your head and tell a park ranger.

It seemed like a lot to remember should a hungry cat come loping down from the sandy hills. Would I unzip my jacket in time? What if I forgot to make eye contact?

Fortunately for visitors meandering down along this patch of the Patagonian coastline in southern Argentina, the pumas are interested in a different type of biped — namely the black-and-white waddling kind.

The penguins who live here were also what brought my wife and me to Monte Leon, the only national park along Argentina’s sinuous Atlantic coast. We had driven here from the coastal city of Rio Gallegos, on a road through the mottled brown steppe that characterizes much of the Patagonian landscape, where endless, gently undulating expanses of dry fields roll out to the horizon and meet an infinite sky. These mega fields look as though they’ve changed little since the days when the giant ground sloth ambled across them 10,000 years ago, but the landscape has actually been carved up into vast ranchlands, demarcated by countless kilometers of thin metal fencing and sporadically populated with sheep, horses and guanacos, which are like llamas.

After driving about 240km, we noticed a small break in this barrier, adorned with a colorfully painted sign.

It was the main entrance to the park — an extra blink, and we would have missed it.

Monte Leon is Argentina’s newest national park and it might not be here at all if not for private funding. The former sheep ranch was purchased in 2001 through a donation made by Kristine Tompkins, the ex-CEO of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company who is working with her husband, Doug Tompkins, to create vast swaths of conservation areas in both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.

The US$2 million price tag to buy the land, strip it of its sheep fencing and clean it up seems like a paltry sum, considering how many animals are now protected.

The old estancia at Monte Leon covers 622km2, including 40km of coastline, and is home to sea birds, sea lions, elephant seals, guanacos, ostrich-like rhea and many other creatures including the penguin-snacking puma. Over the years, such biodiverse riches have attracted their share of plunderers.

Between 1930 and 1960, guano extractors hauled thousands of tonnes of phosphorous-rich dung from a cormorant colony. Exporting guano was a key economic activity but its removal caused a sharp decline in the population of birds, which had used the droppings to make nests.

Seal hunters also took their toll, sometimes killing the creatures en masse. More recently, sheep and the fencing that contained them scarred the landscape.

The road into the park is a 24km stretch of uneven dirt and stones. An all-wheel drive vehicle with a protected underside is essential in Patagonia. Though most main roads in the region are now paved, plenty remain covered in loose, churning rubble that would make quick work of a regular car. It’s important to book your vehicle ahead online; we didn’t and spent a nerve-racking Saturday in early January, peak season, looking for a rental. We ended up paying top dollar for what was seemed to be the only remaining rental truck in Rio Gallegos. But the Toyota Hi-Lux did travel the dirt roads into Monte Leon with ease.

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