South America Only a century ago, South America's primitive forests blanketed the entire region from the southern tip of the continent north half the length of Chile's coast and eastward into Argentina's Patagonia. Beech trees of the genus Nothofagus covered most of the region, mixed with evergreen and various deciduous trees. Once extending more than 35 million acres, these forests comprised the largest stands of pristine temperate rainforest in the world (Nash 1994). Nothofagus beeches are among the most ancient species of trees and have been on Earth more than 150 million years. Soon after their arrival in the 16th century, European settlers began logging these forests, but not until the 20th century did widespread clearance begin. During the 1940s and 1950s, some 13,000 square miles, or 8.3 million acres, of these beech forests were cleared and burned for cattle ranching. Commercial logging continued, subsidized by the Chilean government, which spent comparatively little on forest conservation (Sims 1995). These beautiful forests have been cut mainly for wood chipping factories that produce paper pulp for export to Japan. Powerful commercial lobbyists have opposed legislation to protect the portions of these forests that remain, enabling logging companies to continue clearcutting, pushing some species to the brink of extinction. Once logged, the land is replanted with plantations of eucalyptus or pine, or turned into pastureland for livestock. The 1997 IUCN Red List Plants lists four species of Nothofagus native to Chile and Argentina as vulnerable, indicating a decline toward Endangered status that, if not reversed, will result in their extinction (Walter and Gillett 1998).
Not all Chilean government officials are proponents of the logging. Carlos Ritter, head of the technical department for the National Forest Corporation, a government entity, complained: "Japan has fomented the cutting of our native forests, but they try not to assume responsibility. They say they are only buying the wood. But they have created so much demand the peasant farmer cannot resist cutting his forest" (Nash 1994). During the 1990s, an American logging firm, the Trillium Company, purchased 632,000 acres, or 987 square miles, of ancient forest in the southernmost region, Tierra del Fuego (Sims 1995). The Chilean government overruled opposition and gave permission to the company to begin logging in mid-1996.
An American conservationist, Douglas Tompkins, has preserved some of these forests. He purchased 741,000 acres in the southern province of Palena with more than $12 million from his clothing chain, Esprit. The cost of these beautiful forests, at $17 per acre, was miniscule in comparison to the cost of preserving temperate rainforests in the United States. Save‑the‑Redwoods League, an American conservation organization founded in 1918, recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, having spent $73 million to save 260,000 acres (about one‑third of Tompkins’ acquisitions in Chile) of Coastal Redwoods at an average price of $280 per acre (National Geographic Society 1993). Most of the acreage of American old-growth redwoods that has been saved was purchased decades ago, and today it is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre. The timber saved by the Save-the-Redwoods League is worth more than $5 billion (National Geographic Society 1993).
Tompkins' land includes South America's largest block of virgin temperate rainforest, protecting 78 percent of the remaining old-growth rainforest in Chile, including the country's largest remaining virgin stands of Chilean Larch or Alerce (Fitzroya cuppressoides) (Bowermaster 1995). This endemic and ancient tree grows to heights rivaling North American Coast Redwoods, with girths nearly as great as Sequoias (Sequoia dendron) (Dorst 1967, Walter and Gillett 1998). These majestic trees can live up to 4,000 years and take 500 years to reach commercial size. Extremely slow to reproduce, Alerces do not produce seed until 200 years of age. Like redwoods, they are highly coveted for their lumber and have been cut with little regard to conservation. Highly endangered in Argentina and Chile (Walter and Gillett 1998), few groves of these trees remain, and although officially protected, they are sometimes illegally cut for the international timber market.
Tomkins came under attack by Chilean politicians and leaders of the Catholic Church who questioned his motives in purchasing such a large area and objected to his organization, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, for its statements about the importance of birth control to prevent human overpopulation (Sims 1995). Others falsely accused him of razing forests, setting up a nuclear dump, promoting abortion and even importing Israeli commandos. Many objected to private ownership of extensive areas of land by foreigners or disliked the idea of large-scale land preservation, but a Chilean conservation organization, the National Committee for the Defense of Fauna and Flora, rallied to his defense. After much contention, the Government of Chile accepted Tompkins' gift of 677,000 acres as a park in July 1997 (Grove 1999). It is known as Pumalin National Park and is considered one of the most ecologically important national parks in South America.
In an ominous note, part of the agreement with the Chilean government allowed access to the park by mining companies. The forest will not be logged, and there are plans for tourist accommodations and trails for hiking. This land is spectacularly beautiful, with glacial lakes and waterfalls, bisected by pristine rivers, its ancient forests teeming with wildlife. Covering the entire width of Chile, it borders a magnificent coastline with abundant marine mammals and sea birds. If preserved with care, the park will prevent the extinction of Chilean Larch and at least a portion of the magnificent southern beech forests which have been destroyed elsewhere. Ecotourism is being developed in the park area on a very small scale, with rustic accommodations, and tours from the United States and elsewhere are now visiting the park regularly. Not far to the north, the Parque Nacional Huerquehue preserves some of the magnificent scenery of this region. Known as the Lake District, portions of old-growth rainforest are protected in a landscape of crystalline lakes, waterfalls and churning rivers.
Another tree that survives from the Jurassic, the Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria imbricata), has a somewhat larger range in South America. It is a member of a family of primitive conifers, the Araucaria, that grew on Gondwana. Monkey Puzzle Trees are being logged for timber and displaced by development, cattle ranches and mines. Named for their dense and interwoven crowns said to puzzle monkeys climbing them, the wide, unbranched trunk is covered in leathery bark in a knobby, diamond-shaped pattern. The nuts produced by these trees have been prized by the native Malpuche people for thousands of years. Malpuche means "People of the Monkey Puzzle Tree," and traditionally they did not overexploit these trees. Commercial exploitation of the nuts in local markets is threatening the species by leaving too few seeds for regeneration. Extracts from the Monkey Puzzle Trees have shown promise as a birth control drug, a traditional use by native peoples.
Like the Alerce, Monkey Puzzle Trees live to be very old, at least 1,300 years, and trees of the Araucaria family are considered the progenitor of all pines (Grove 1999). (See photographs in Grove 1999, and Dorst 1967.) When the Discovery Channel-BBC producers of the documentary film, “Walking With Dinosaurs,” searched for living landscapes in which to place their animated dinosaur models, an open forest of Araucaria trees in Chile was selected as an authentic backdrop, having changed little since dinosaurs fed on their crowns. The book based on this film has photographs of Araucaria forests from the movie (Haines 1999). Thirty-eight species of Araucaria survive, distributed in South America, New Zealand, Fiji, New Caledonia, Australia and Norfolk Island north to Malaysia. More than three-fourths of these, 30 species, are threatened with extinction, according to the 1997 IUCN Red List Plants (Walter and Gillett 1998).
Another family of trees dating back to Gondwana, the podocarps, are also extremely primitive evergreens. Podocarps often have straight, unbranched trunks and clumps of dense needles near the trunk. Like the Araucaria, many of the species in the family are in decline: of 125 species worldwide, 70 are threatened (Walter and Gillett 1998). Two of these inhabit the southern rainforests of Chile and Argentina, and others survive in more tropical climates in Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil, Madagascar, New Caledonia, Fiji, New Guinea and Malaysia. Australia and New Zealand have more temperate climates and many native podocarps.
A threatened bird native to the old-growth forests of Chile and southern Argentina is the Slender-billed Parakeet (Enicognathus leptorhynchus), one of the few members of the parrot family that can survive cold climates. It has undergone steep declines in recent years as a result of forest clearance (Forshaw 1989). At least 22 bird species are restricted to Chilean Nothofagus forests, making this region a center of endemism (Cracraft 1985).
The most endangered denizen of southern rainforests may be the South Andean Huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus), a short‑legged, stocky deer that once lived throughout this habitat in Chile and Argentina. Driven from most of its haunts by the introduction of European deer, cattle ranching, logging and hunting, they now survive only in the extreme south of Chile, in tundra‑like terrain with elfin woodlands. Low, gnarled trees are whipped by the strong ocean winds from Antarctic regions (Dorst 1967). No more than 1,300 South Andean Huemul are thought to remain (Nowak 1999), and a campaign has been launched to save these deer (Stutzin 1995). The National Committee for the Defense of Fauna and Flora and the Frankfurt Zoological Society are researching their status and raising money to purchase sufficient habitat for their survival (Stutzin 1995). Two reserves protect about 100 Huemul, but as the target of meat poachers throughout their range, they are found only in inaccessible areas. Researchers studying these deer, which had never had contact with humans, found them completely unafraid, grazing and bedding down within feet of their tents. This tameness makes them especially vulnerable to poachers.
Without immediate habitat protection and guarding of the remaining deer, the Huemul may not last long. Their status has declined even in national parks within the past few years. Alejandro Frid, a biologist who found these deer living in pristine habitat along a fjord in extreme southern Chile in a 1990 study, returned in 1995 to find near-disaster. Cattle had been set free in the Bernardo O'Higgins National Park, displacing the Huemul from their prime grassland habitat and forcing them into the sparse vegetation of the uplands (Frid 1997). He was told by a local ex-poacher that illegal hunting by local fishermen still occurred, and the lowland habitat was so trampled by the cattle that it was covered in muddy pits (Frid 1997). Ironically, the owners of the cattle did not eat beef but were adopting European cultural traditions, and since this harsh region did not provide good habitat, the cattle were not in good condition (Frid 1997). Conservationists are working to have the cattle removed from the national park, and international organizations are working to protect remnant populations of these deer. On the Straits of Magellan, where other South Andean Huemuls survive, commercial logging corporations are clearing forests (Frid 1997). The introduced Elk (Cervus elaphus) competes for habitat, and many Huemul are killed in attacks by domestic dogs (Nowak 1999). The South Andean Huemul and its close relative the North Andean Huemul (Hippocamelus antisensis) are both listed as Endangered on the US Endangered Species Act. This listing may not prevent their extinction, however.
The world's smallest deer, the Southern Pudu (Pudu puda), also inhabits southern temperate rainforests. This dog-sized deer is short-legged, with thick, buffy, reddish-brown fur and small, spike-like antlers. It is so diminutive, weighing only 5.8 to 13.4 kilos (Nowak 1999), that people have captured them as pets, which has contributed to their rarity. Its range within Chile was once far more extensive (Nowak 1999). The major threat to this species and its close relative, the Northern Pudu (Pudu mephistophiles) of the Andes of Peru through Colombia, is forest destruction. Pudu puda is listed as endangered on the US Endangered Species Act and on Appendix I of CITES, banning commercial trade, but hunting still threatens it.*
*Many trees of the southern beech forest, the South Andean Huemul and Pudu deer appeared in the 1997 film, “Chile, Land of Extremes” (see Video, Central and South America section); the trees were photographed in Living Planet, Preserving Edens of the Earth (Grove 1999).