30 Jul 2018

Argentina is about to get its largest National Park

This year’s British Birdwatching Fair will support the creation of Argentina's largest national park, in the process providing a haven to nearly a million flamingos and shorebirds.

Mar Chiquita lake harbours most of the planet's Chilean Flamingos © Pablo Rodriguez Merkel
Mar Chiquita lake harbours most of the planet's Chilean Flamingos © Pablo Rodriguez Merkel
By James Lowen

A gargantuan pink candyfloss wisps over an immense lake in north-central Argentina before sugar-rushing upwards in a flurry of a hundred thousand wings. Mar Chiquita – South America's second-largest waterbody, and the world's fifth-biggest salt lake – harbours most of the planet's Chilean Flamingo Phoenicopterus chilensis and nearly half its Andean Flamingo Phoenicoparrus andinus. A lagoon with a legend, it is also an IBA In Danger, a national-park-in-waiting… and the focus of the British Birdwatching Fair 2018.

Mar Chiquita means 'little sea'. This vast salina (salt lake) ranges 45 miles (70km) by 15 miles (24km). Mar Chiquita is a literal oasis – and its water, marshy fringes and surrounding grasslands throng with wildlife. Up to 318,000 Chilean Flamingos (Near Threatened) have been counted, their bubblegum-pink congregation boosted in winter with up to 18,000 Andean Flamingo (Vulnerable) and smaller numbers of Puna Flamingo Phoenicoparrus jamesi (Near Threatened).

 

Mar Chiquita, meaning "Little Sea", is South America's second largest water body © Pablo Rodriguez Merkel

 

Mar Chiquita's shorebird gatherings challenge credulity. Tens of thousands of American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica, White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris fuscicollis and Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes migrate here from North America. Tens of thousands of each species, that is. But that's small change.

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Six hundred thousand Wilson's Phalaropes Steganopus tricolor winter here. Six hundred thousand. Roughly one-third of the world population of these delicate, needle-billed shorebirds pirouettes hyperactively atop the water or darken the sky when clouding between invertebrate-rich shorelines. "Mar Chiquita is key to the future of shorebirds using three different intercontinental flyways", says Rob Clay, Director, Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network executive office.

 

Six hundred thousand Wilson's Phalaropes make their home in Mar Chiquita © Gustavo Bruno

 

This in itself might be world enough. Yet appreciating the full faunal richness of Mar Chiquita involves venturing away from water. In golden-dry grasslands, South America's tallest bird, the flightless Greater Rhea Rhea americana (Near Threatened), canters past a diminutive Bearded Tachuri Polystictus pectoralis (Near Threatened). At night, a Maned Wolf Chrysocyon brachyurus (Near Threatened) – essentially, a fox on stilts – lopes along while the bizarre Sickle-winged Nightjar Eleothreptus anomalus (Near Threatened) glides overhead. Swampy areas host Dot-winged Crake Porzana spiloptera (Vulnerable) and Dinelli's Doradito Pseudocolopteryx dinelliana (Near Threatened), while Crowned Solitary Eagles Buteogallus coronatus (Endangered) roam over dry, quebracho-stippled Chaco forest.

A haven for wildlife, unequivocally. But also a haven in peril, regrettably. Mar Chiquita may drip with official designations: "it's a Ramsar Site, one of Argentina's top Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA), a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve and a provincial reserve", says Malena Srur of Aves Argentinas (BirdLife Partner). But these alone haven't kept it safe. Ignominiously, Mar Chiquita features among Argentina's handful of IBAs In Danger. It is this claim to infame that has spurred action by Aves Argentinas. Action that will now receive Birdfair funding. 

 

The Maned Wolf, dubbed a "fox on stilts", inhabits the nearby grassland © Spencer Wright

 

The organisation has a full plate in front of them. Water is being extracted from Mar Chiquita at a rate that prompts talk of desiccation. The lake suffers pollution from local industry. The area's integrity, Srur says, "is further threatened by agricultural intensification, an above-average deforestation rate and unregulated tourism".

Water is being extracted from Mar Chiquita at a rate that risks desiccation

For several years, Srur explains, Aves Argentinas has surveyed birds, raised environmental awareness, improved management and clarified land ownership at Mar Chiquita. Then came its masterstroke: an ambitious plan, developed with provincial and national authorities, to create what should become the country's largest national park. Anticipated to be officially designated this year following a concordat signed in 2017 by Argentina's environment minister, National Parks Administration and the governor of Córdoba province, Ansenuza National Park will protect up to 700,000 hectares. "Being managed at the national rather than regional level guarantees greater protection", enthuses Srur. This is mighty work – worthy of the gods, indeed.

 

The lake is under threat from water extraction, pollution and unsustainable agriculture © Gustavo Bruno

 

Which brings us to the legend that seasons Mar Chiquita. The fable both explains the national park's name and celebrates its flamingos. One day, Ansenuza – the beautiful yet cruel goddess of water – chanced upon a warrior dying in the sandy margins of her lagoon. Unexpectedly, she was entranced by his beauty. Moved by love for the first time, Ansenuza wept as the man's life expired, her torrential tears turning the lake salty. Fellow gods took pity on Ansenuza and returned life to the warrior, transforming him into a beautiful, slender bird adorned with pink feathers. From that moment on, flamingos have inhabited the salina.

Boosting the local economy through nature-based tourism is fundamental to the project's success

Enshrining the lake's colloquial name in the national park title speaks volumes. Community engagement – participatory planning, empowering local stakeholders and establishing a network of 'local conservation guardians' – has been integral to Aves Argentinas' strategy from the outset. Moreover, bolstering the local economy through nature-based tourism is fundamental to the project's success. Having identified Mar Chiquita as a priority area in Argentina's 2016 National Sustainable Tourism Strategic Plan, the Ministry for Tourism is delighted. "A vibrant ecotourism circuit at Ansenuza", explains Srur, "will lengthen the tourist season and generate sustainable livelihoods over a wider area. Local communities will become strongly committed to Ansenuza's long-term conservation."

 

Mar Chiquita is set to become a paradise for birders, as well as birds © Gustavo Bruno

 

It is this inspiring future that British Birdwatching Fair funds will help create. But it's not just about the money. "Birdfair recognition has already been a major boost for building domestic political awareness about why Mar Chiquita/Ansenuza needs to be protected," says Srur. Isadora Angarita-Martínez (former BirdLife International Biodiversity Conservation Manager) goes further. The Birdfair brand "will help gain birding-industry support, which is key to making Ansenuza a birding paradise".

Competition to be the project supported by the annual Birdfair is intense. In deciding which of several worthy initiatives support each year, Birdfair decision-makers take into account how the project will strengthen the wider BirdLife Partnership. Angarita-Martínez welcomes Aves Argentinas's intention to help "build capacity in policy development among BirdLife's Americas Regional partnership". And she praises how the organisation is "integrating the project across BirdLife programmes: from IBAs in Danger, through Flyways to the Southern Cone Grassland Alliance".

Birdfair projects have always thought big. Last year’s theme, ‘Saving paradise in the Pacific’, aims to clear the French Polynesian island of Rapa Iti – one of the remotest islands in the world – of invasive predators. Today it was announced that the 2017 Birdfair raised an incredible £333,000 towards the work – the second highest total in Birdfair history.

And this year will be no less ambitious. A project to convert an IBA in Danger into a protected national park. An initiative to develop sustainable livelihoods through ecotourism. A design that will benefit BirdLife Partners across an entire continent. A worthy recipient of 2018 Birdfair support indeed. The goddess Ansenuza may still weep, but her tears are no longer those of sadness – rather those of joy.