Unique Bolivia Park Begun by Indigenous People

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 13, 2004

The parched, southeastern corner of Bolivia is the unlikely home to a park that houses Latin America's highest diversity of large mammals, and is the stage for an unusual story of protected-area creation and operation.

"The park remains the only national protected area in the Americas created as the result of an initiative by an indigenous organization," said Michael Painter, Bolivia program director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has helped manage the park since its creation in 1995.

The Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park is primarily a sparsely populated dry forest scrubland that receives less than 20 inches (500 millimeters) of rain each year and temperatures routinely rise above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).

Despite the arid climate, the park serves as a refuge for jaguars (Panthera onca), Chacoan peccaries (Catagonus wagneri), and Chacoan guanacos (Lama guanicoe), the latter of which there are only 140 left in Bolivia.

It is also home to giant armadillos (Priodontes giganteus), brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira), white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari), pumas (Puma concolor), tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), and a diversity of reptiles and birds.

"Many mammals have adapted to the driest parts of the Chaco where they go without water for several months each year," said Painter. "Tapir, peccaries, and brocket deer appear to survive on cactus, while carnivores like jaguar and puma [survive] on fluids from their prey."

In addition, the park and adjacent lands are home to indigenous peoples who took the initiative to create the park and negotiate an impact-and-management agreement with the owners of a pipeline that passes through the area.

Park Creation

Historically, the Chaco dry forest spanned across regions of southeastern Bolivia, Paraguay, northern Argentina, and Brazil, but much has been lost in recent years to agriculture and ranching.

The Capitania de Alto y Bajo Izozog (CABI), an organization that represents the Izoceño indigenous society, recognized that unless stemmed the agricultural frontier would encroach into lands of the Chaco they deem as culturally and economically important.

WCS, eager to preserve Chacoan wildlife, joined forces with CABI beginning in 1991, helping the organization tackle the technical and administrative challenges of establishing a protected area, such as drafting management plans and performing wildlife research.

The collaborative effort paid off: the Bolivian government established the Kaa Iya del Gran Chaco National Park in 1995 and partnered with CABI to manage it. The park covers 8.4 million acres (3.4 million hectares), an area larger than the U.S. states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

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