Chilean Patagonian Expedition to Foster Stewardship of the Unique Cape Horn Region

In Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, scoping out miniature forests and revisiting Darwin's musings on the world's southernmost people
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Peaks, bays, and islands make up the often wind-raked Cape Horn landscape.

A Chilean group mounted an expedition last month to the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, which lies within the vast Magellanic sub-Antarctic eco-region, in the hope that the experience would spur action for the future well-being of the biocultural wealth of Patagonia's wild lands and waters.

"This isn't your typical boardroom meeting of industry and science," said Isabel Behncke, a Chilean primatologist who flew in from Oxford, England, to join the trip. "It's a biocultural blitz, a jolt of reconnecting with a wild landscape—the most fun and effective way to bolster civic engagement."

The team consisted of some 30 leaders from various sectors of Chilean society, including scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers. I, in Chile to learn about some of its conservation approaches, was invited to cover the November 23-26 trip for National Geographic.

The 19,000-square-mile (49,000-square-kilometer) Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve "harbors the world's cleanest rain and cleanest streams," explained the expedition's guide, Chilean biologist Ricardo Rozzi. "Its expanse of temperate forests is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, and its botanical endemism rivals that of the Pacific Islands.

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"And yet," he said, his voice rising with incredulity, "we're not included in global long-term ecological research and monitoring. This has to change!"

The Cape Horn region, although remote and sparsely inhabited, is vulnerable to such global threats as climate change, invasive species, and cultural homogenization.

Patagonia's ice fields, which the group admired from the air as we arrived, span nearly 7,000 square miles (18,000 square kilometers)—the largest ice fields in the Southern Hemisphere outside Antarctica. But they're projected to shrink fast, contributing to rising sea levels that would displace people and animals and alter habitats along coastlines throughout the Cape Horn archipelago.

It was Rozzi who, back in 2006, convinced UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere program to establish the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve. What made this achievement unusual was that Rozzi advocated protection not on the basis of big, charismatic animals (generally favored by advocates for such programs), but of small, unglamorous plants: mosses.

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On a Twin Otter aircraft, expedition member Claudio Seebach points out the route from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams, via the icy mountain range known as Cordillera Darwin.

The Moss Missionary

Our journey began at Omora Ethnobotanical Park, the reserve's research and education hub, where mosses are ubiquitous.

"Mosses here fulfill the same role vascular plants play elsewhere—namely filters and sponges of water," Rozzi said. One of his students demonstrated that filtering power by pouring a glass of murky water over a patch of moss and capturing the clear water that drained through it.

The mosses in Omora help purify the Róbalo River watershed, the source of drinking water for Puerto Williams, the provincial capital. I scooped up a handful of water. It was divinely fresh.

Mosses so enthrall Rozzi that he never misses a chance to push what he calls "ecotourism with a hand lens"—an idea that's already been taken up in Alaska's Denali National Park.

In that spirit, I'm soon darting around with my magnifying glass, marveling at the intricate beauty of mosses—some of Earth's oldest plants. These miniature "forests" are a revelation to a big-species researcher like me who has spent much of her adult life studying large mammals in Africa.

Roughly 60 percent of the reserve's bryophytes—mosses and their cousins, liverworts—are endemic, found only here, Rozzi told us, adding that "they represent more than 5 percent of the world's bryophytes on less than 0.01 percent of the Earth's land surface."

Mosses not only serve as natural filtration systems, but also stabilize soils and afford protection from flooding, Rozzi said. (The engineers among us perked up at this revelation.) And, he added, "they fix nitrogen and capture huge amounts of carbon," as recent research corroborates.

Protecting forests, and mosses by proxy, is one critical way to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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A young Magellanic woodpecker perches on the branch of a coihue tree, with the family's dominant male sitting in front of him. The adult male will feed the young one until it learns to peck for insects.

From Ground to Sky

South of the Beagle Channel, there are no reptiles, no amphibians, and less than a handful of native mammals (guanacos, two rodent species, and one type of fox). But the Cape Horn region has its share of birds that deserve to be called charismatic.

One in particular is the Magellanic woodpecker, the world's largest, up to 18 inches long—assuming that North America's ivory-billed is extinct.

Birds like this magnificent woodpecker featured prominently in the myths and narratives of the indigenous Yamana.

"Their stories hinted at common origins and kinship of humans, birds, and other animals—not unlike scientific evolutionary theory," Rozzi told the group. "Another prominent bird in the tales was the firecrown, a hummingbird, or omora, after which we named the park."

The Yamana considered the omora to be descended from the barn owl, though the two birds don't remotely resemble one another.

Under Rozzi's guidance we identified Magellanic oystercatchers, whose bright plumage contrasted sharply with the shades of the abundant yellow lichen; southern giant petrels, which in size rival the area's albatrosses; and kelp geese, one of the world's two marine geese species (the other being the Pacific brant, in the Arctic).

Kelp geese likely baffled Darwin in the same way the peacock's tail did. The females, which sit on the eggs for 25 days to incubate the chicks, are dark-colored and blend in with their stony rookeries—protection against predation by large birds such as skuas.

The males, though, are stark white and conspicuous, making them more vulnerable to birds of prey flying overhead. If a male can sport an extravagant tail or white plumage and still manage to evade predators, he must be good enough to mate with. But such ornaments seem to defy natural selection, in that they handicap males and jeopardize their survival.

Ashley Smiley, of the University of New Mexico, who studies Magellanic woodpeckers, explained on the expedition that they and other native Patagonian birds nest and forage on or near the ground. "They're entirely naive to terrestrial predators and so, increasingly threatened by invasive American minks."

Minks—escapees from fur farms—were first spotted in the reserve in 2001, according to Ramiro Crego, whose Ph.D. work at the University of North Texas is focused on nonnative predators. There are also other invasive species in the area, he told the group, pointing out recent teeth marks made by North American beavers along a riverbank lined with dead trees. "We need ideas on how to control them."

One idea is to encourage local people to hunt beavers for meat, which some Yamana are now doing.

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To explore the micro-world on the Róbalo River, expedition members set up a temporary aquatic lab, with nets, containers, and magnifying glasses. Aquatic insects like the prong-gill mayfly (in the book held at right) make good indicators of pollution levels.

Land of Fire

Yamana have inhabited southern Patagonia's shores, inlets, and islands for more than 10,000 years.

"Their country," Darwin wrote in 1834 on his Beagle voyage, "is a broken mass of wild rocks, lofty hills and useless forests, and these are viewed through mists and endless storms. In search of food they move from spot to spot, and so steep is the coast, this must be done in wretched canoes."

Courtesy of the Chilean navy, we sailed in a patroller through the Beagle Channel, framed by those same forests and hills.

In her 2010 book, European Encounters with the Yamana People of Cape Horn, Before and After Darwin, the late French-North American ethnologist Anne Chapman called this marine thoroughfare the "Champs Élysées of the Yamana."

Traditional Yamana families were mobile, hunting sea lions and cormorants from their canoes and diving for shellfish. The perpetual damp made reigniting fires difficult, so they kept them burning day and night (even in the canoes). Visible from the sea, the fires inspired early European explorers to dub the area Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire.

We didn't see any fires, but Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham riffed off the idea of Tierra del Fuego as he told us about the role of fire in human evolution. "Fire made cooking possible, which meant more efficient delivery of calories to fuel the expansion of our energy-expensive brains. It may seem obvious to us, but we're the only animal that cooks."

Only about 150 Yamana descendants live in the Cape Horn region today. "They're considered mestizos, people of mixed ethnicity," anthropologist Maurice Van de Maele said. Van de Maele, a local member of the expedition, has studied the Yamana over three decades and directs a museum in Puerto Williams devoted to their history. "This is our division, not theirs. They consider themselves fully Yamana."

Most Yamana are concentrated around Puerto Williams, where they sell traditional handicrafts, such as woven baskets and canoes, to visitors. Others work in the local king crab industry. Like most Amerindians, they retain a strong connection to nature and their native land.

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Gliding low over Península Valdés, this giant petrel is one of many charismatic bird species seen in Patagonia.

For the Sake of the Commonwealth

"Nature, by making habit omnipotent, has fitted the Fuegians to the climate and productions of their country," Darwin wrote in 1834.

Rozzi reminded us that the word "ethics" comes from the Ancient Greek ethos, meaning den, the dwelling of an animal. Ethos refers to the habits we form and use to inhabit our den, our habitat, our home.

"We cannot all be native to places where we live, yet we can all aspire to become true inhabitants," wrote Scott Russell Sanders in 2003 in A Conservationist Manifesto.

Back in 2001, Rozzi asked people in Puerto Williams to list the top five plants they could think of. While most tended to name exotics such as apples and roses, the Yamana and elderly residents (those born in the Cape Horn region) often named native and edible plants, such as the chaura and the calafate. It is believed that anyone who eats the calafate berries and leaves Patagonia will be lured back.

"How about mosses, hummingbirds, and monkey puzzle trees?" Rozzi said. "We must improve people's knowledge of their local environments, their commonwealth."

Education programs Rozzi has put in place in the reserve seem to be succeeding. When he asked the same plant questions again nearly a decade later, mosses were one of the first that people—including naval officers and local teachers—thought of.

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In Omora Ethnobotanical Park, "old man's beard"—a kind of lichen—clings to the trunks of southern beech trees. On the ground, mosses are also widespread, filtering the rainwater that soaks through them and helping to keep rivers clean.

Rozzi is cooking up a new plan. "We have a special opportunity for biocultural stewardship in one of the last remaining wild places on Earth," he said. By 2018 he aims to establish a world-class research and educational institute, the Cape Horn Sub-Antarctic Center, in Puerto Williams.

Thanks to our expedition, he has a new ally in this: Eduardo Godoy, director of Ochoalcubo, an innovative architectural firm based in Santiago.

"The center should be for Puerto Williams what the Guggenheim Museum is for the city of Bilbao in Spain," Godoy said. "An iconic building can position Puerto Williams in the world circuit of architectural tourism in the context of wild nature, bringing new income to the region."

Another idea seeded by the expedition is a documentary film about the Yamana, conceived by journalist Paloma Avila. It will build on Kulmapu, the TV documentary series she's just released about the Mapuche, Chile's largest indigenous group.

Finally, Claudia Bobadilla, from the networking think tank Red Alta Dirección, who was our expedition's main organizer, has set her sights on hosting a forum on how Chile can best confront climate change.

Her spur was a presentation to the group by climate scientist Luis Cifuentes, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when it was honored in 2007 with a Nobel Peace Prize for advancing public knowledge about human-induced climate change.

"Climate change is often perceived as too big to grasp," Bobadilla said. But, "it's a pressing issue that we have to address."

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