Poaching, Mining Imperil "Crown Jewel" Park in Chile

September 5, 2003

At 20,800 feet (6,340 meters), the peak of the snow-covered, dormant volcano Parinacota, in northern Chile, commands a view of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile's high Andean altiplano.

The volcano dominates the landscape of Chile's Parque Nacional Lauca. Atop Parinacota, the park seems peaceful. On the ground, though, classic conflicts have developed between conservation and commerce.

Poachers come for the pelts of the vicuna and the now-endangered puma. And miners covet the gold once mined extensively in the park highlands.

Lauca National Park, named for the Lauca River that snakes through the southern part of the park, is one of South America's crown-jewel conservation areas. In 1981 UNESCO named the park a Biosphere Reserve.

"(Lauca) harbors a great diversity of natural habitats, including wetlands and lakes, home to birds, fishes and an abundance of flora," said Pablo Marquet, a biologist at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile in Santiago who has surveyed the park's boundaries.

Lauca's wetlands are home to more than 100 bird species, including the flamingo, giant coot, white owl, Andean geese, and nandus (a flightless South American bird resembling the emu). Three species of flamingo throng the shores of Lake Chungara—at 12,000 feet (3,660 meters), one of the world's highest lakes. Birders from around the world flock to Lauca.

The park contains more than 30 species of mammals, including wild llamas, vicuna, foxes, alpacas, chinchillas, and Andean and pampas cats.

Gold Mining Prospects

Not all the park's treasures are wild. In cave sites like Refugio Rocoso Las Cuevas and Chacus Incaico Las Cuevas, artifacts and cave paintings date back thousands of years to the ancestors of the Aymara people who still live in the park.

Chile's National Forest Corporation, or CONAF, administers Chile's national parks and reserves. But only 14 CONAF rangers patrol the vast Lauca park—often to check reports about Bolivians who have crossed the border to hunt vicuna, foxes, and pumas.

"In the past, some Bolivian poachers have gone to jail," said ranger Leonel Garcia Rojas. "But the park is large, and many areas are rugged and don't have roads. It's difficult to catch poachers."

Mining interests also pose a threat. "People want to mine to improve their standard of living," Marquet said. Just 120 miles (190 kilometers) away from Lauca is Iquique, a flourishing city whose wealth has derived from copper mines.

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