An ostrich-like bird, the Darwin’s (or Lesser) rhea is one of the most distinctive, fabled and endangered residents of the Chilean steppe. Rheas do not fly, but thanks to their unusually large wings, which they spread behind their bodies while running from predators, they can sprint at speeds over 50 kph. Two species of rhea, the Greater and Lesser, occupy overlapping ranges in Patagonia which straddles Argentina and Chile. A groundbreaking conservation programme by Tompkins Conservation is helping to restore this iconic bird to Chilean Patagonia. “We’ve had a very successful hatching season, with 22 new chicks in Patagonia National Park, at South America’s only reproduction centre for Darwin’s rhea,” says Kristine Tompkins, President of Tompkins Conservation and a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Patron of Protected Areas. “In four years of our rewilding programme the population of this endangered species, which fell to only 20 in Patagonia National Park, has tripled.”

The Ñandú (Darwin’s rhea) Reproduction Centre began operations in 2015 in Patagonia National Park. It’s part of a larger rewilding programme to restore native species to create whole and healthy ecosystems. “Since the 1970s there have been unprecedented global declines in the extent and integrity of ecosystems, distinctness of local ecological communities, abundance and number of wild species, and the number of local domesticated varieties,” says a recent article in Science titled Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change, written by authors of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment. Tompkins Conservation, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Government of Chile announced an agreement to create a public-private fund to ensure the future conservation of Chilean Patagonia. This move to protect one of the last wild places on Earth could be a game-changer for conservation.

Patagonia is a vast, sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America, shared between Chile and Argentina. With its fjords, glaciers, large forests, numerous waterways, steppe and grasslands this unique environment offers significant potential for conservation.

The funding agreement will allow implementation of responsible and effective pathways for change, concurring with the Platform’s finding that “successful conservation outcomes are dependent on adaptive governance, sustained funding, strong societal engagement, effective and equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms, and monitoring and enforcement of rules.”

According to Francisco Solis of The Pew Charitable Trusts, “the Chilean project is unique in that it proposes to give equal attention to community benefits and enhanced nature protections. Here, private contributions will complement increases in public investment in park management until the government ultimately assumes full fiscal responsibility through sources such as tourism revenue.”

The project is a response to the challenge of financing and managing a dramatically expanding park system, after Tompkins Conservation’s historic donation created seven new national parks and expanded three others in Chilean Patagonia. In all, the foundation donated over 526,000 hectares of land.

For Kristine Tompkins, President of Tompkins Conservation and UN Patron of Protected Areas, the milestone takes Chile one step further to becoming an international model for conservation. “We consider this fund to be a keystone of our commitment with Chile post-donation,” she explains. “We are helping to conserve one of the most pristine corners of the planet.”

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