Exotic, Endangered and Elusive: Creatures of Chile

One of the biggest highlights of my trip came when my group just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We were camping on Chile’s largest island, Chiloe, at Parque Ahuenco. Ahuenco is a privately established conservation area, one of the first established in Chile. All eyes were on the outrageous colors of the sun setting over the ocean. We were in a small clearing, surrounded by brush. The ground was uneven and hilly in places. As we disbanded after eating our dinner to get cleaned up and ready to turn in, a member of my group noticed that we had company.

The calm before the pudu storm.

A silhouetted head popped out of the nearby bushes. Discussion regarding the identity of the creature ensued. “Is it a goat? Or a sheep?” “A baby goat?” “Does it have horns?” Then, someone nearly shouted, “It’s a pudu!” There was a moment of breathless silence. “No. Way.” “It can’t be.” “Are you serious?” The little critter was looking about, munching on nalca (a common plant in Chile with large, tough leaves). I set off down the trail towards the beach in order to get a better look at the little guy. I crept along, trying to see him without him seeing me. I heard a cry arise back at camp which was quickly hushed. Other members of my group appeared behind me on the trail, binoculars in hand. Their hardly-contained whispers made their way up the line to me: “It’s a PUDU!” “It IS a pudu!” We found a better vantage point and watched the young male pudu with awed wonder.

To give you an idea of why we were so excited about this diminutive goat-look-a-like, we’d been in Chile for five weeks by this time and had learned a lot about the flora and fauna of the country. We learned to identify a number of bird species, seen dolphins swimming in the fjords and examined a number of huge beetles and stick bugs. We read several scientific papers about the smallest species of deer in the world, Pudu puda, and it’s status as an endangered species. Pudu only grow to be about 15 inches tall at the shoulder and the males grow short, spiked antlers. We learned that they can live in many areas of Chile but due to predation by pumas, domestic dogs and human interactions typically involving vehicles, their numbers are rapidly declining. We also learned that pudu are very frightened of humans, making the chances of seeing one even smaller.

For an even better perspective, the instructor of my program, who has been teaching this course for eight years had previously only seen one pudu. That pudu was swimming in a river and was unable to hear the approach of the group of humans. The wind was just right so that the pudu couldn’t smell them either. My instructor counted himself extremely lucky to have had this brief encounter.

Our group crouched among sand dunes gawking at the pudu until it was nearly dark. All the while the tiny deer continued to munch on vegetation, wandering idly from plant to plant. He was certainly aware of his audience but didn’t seem even remotely bothered by our stares and whispers. Finally, we tore ourselves away from this once-in-a-lifetime wildlife viewing opportunity and returned to camp to chatter all evening about how lucky we were to have seen a pudu.

The first glimpse of the first pudu. Photo by: Lina Bell

The next day, after a long hike and a plant identification quiz, we returned to camp to make dinner and settle in for the night. Again, the sunset made a spectacle of the western horizon. A few people walked down to the beach to take photos and appreciate the view. Minutes later, one person came running back. “More pudu!” The rest of the group leapt into action, grabbing cameras and binoculars, hunger and tiredness totally forgotten. We hustled down the trail with bated breath.

This time, there were two pudu, a female and her fawn. They were closer to the ocean but still among the brush, munching contentedly. The mother watched warily as we approached, the safety of her baby clearly her main priority. When we stopped advancing and kept still she must have decided we weren’t much of a threat and resumed her munching, keeping one eye on us and the other on her fawn.

A whisper arose a few minutes later. Another pudu. Another male, this one larger and more mature than the one we’d seen last night. How was this possible? We’d never even considered the possibility of seeing one pudu let alone an entire family of them! Now we were staring at each other with open mouths. What incredible luck. For the rest of our time on Chiloe, we joked about our evening pudu/sunset watch.

Our pudu adventures weren’t quite over though. On the morning of our departure, we loaded up in a 16-passenger van and began rumbling down a dirt road toward the town of Ancud. It was still early in the morning and we were subdued, happy to sit in real seats and travel by something other than foot. Suddenly the van lurched and our driver swore. A small brown blur bounded out of the path of our van and into the underbrush on the side of the road. “PUDU!” We erupted into conversation and laughter. We had not only seen and photographed five of Chile’s most elusive and endangered creatures, we had nearly killed one with our van. We joked that Chile was overrun with them; the scientists were just looking in the wrong places.

The Chiloe penguin colony up close.

Also on Chiloe Island, we were very fortunate to see a colony of Magellanic penguins. Ahuenco has made it their mission to protect the penguins while still allowing visitors to the area to catch a glimpse of them. They built a mirador (lookout) above the area on the beach where the penguins usually come in out of the sea to rest and sun themselves. I had never even dreamed of seeing wild penguins and was practically shaking with excitement as we climbed up to the small platform and peered down at the group of 50, or so, penguins.

They all faced the same direction and were fairly quiet. The juvenile penguins were actually larger than the adults; besides the fact that their young, downy feathers made them look exceptionally fluffy, they stay on land all day while their parents go out hunting and bring fish back to them. A couple penguins played on the edge of the water, bobbing in the gentle tide and searching for morsels of food. Others groomed one another or stretched out in the sand.

Monito del monte, one of the cutest marsupials. Photo from: http://faculty.ucr.edu/~chappell/INW/Chile/monito.shtml

While visiting Parque Nacional Altos de Licay, we had more incredible luck and caught a glimpse of the endangered and ecologically important, monito del monte. The ‘little mountain monkey’ is in fact not a monkey, but a very small marsupial. They do, however, live in trees and eat their fruits. The monito has been studied and discovered to be one of the most important seed dispersers for many of Chile’s native tree and plant species. These little critters typically weigh no more than an ounce-and-half, giving them the appearance of big-eyed mice with very long tails (approximately five inches long).

My friends and I were walking back to our campsite about a half an hour after the sun had set. We had our headlamps on and were talking quietly. Suddenly a bit of movement caught my friend’s and she stopped me, “What’s that?” I backtracked a bit to shine my light about six feet up into a young tree. Huge, frightened eyes stared back at me. We stared at one another for a moment before the tiny monito tried to make a break for it and escape the harsh beam of my headlight. That’s when we saw its long tail. We had another “Could it possibly be … a monito?” moment very much like when we first spotted the pudu. We kept our sights on the tiny climber long enough to confirm it was indeed a montito del monte.

We weren’t able to snap a photo and didn’t want to prolong the little monito’s fear any longer so we crept back to camp. We burst into talk and laughter as soon as we made it back to our tents. A monito! It was unbearably cute. We whispered late into the night, unable to believe our luck.

Chile is home to so many interesting and threatened creatures. Our group was so fortunate to learn about and see a few of them. I think that experiences like these help us remember that the planet belongs to all creatures great and small and that in a lot of ways, we are responsible for keeping it that way. In order to do so, we must fight habitat destruction, conduct ourselves with care and caution while visiting wild places and strive to cause as little harm as possible.

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