Expedition Uncovers Wildlife Wonders at Tierra del Fuego

February 25, 2011

WCS partners with local groups to protect elephant seals, albatrosses, penguins, and other marine wildlife in Admiralty Sound, on an expedition to help safeguard this coastal region.

Surrounded by icy seas, the windswept tip of South America’s mainland may not seem particularly inviting. But while humans shy away from this lonely place, wildlife populations do not.

In December 2010, a WCS expedition crossed these rough and frigid seas to survey seal and bird populations on a remote fjord on the Chilean side of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. Along their voyage through Admiralty Sound, the scientists encountered leopard seals, albatrosses, sei whales, elephant seals, and rockhopper and king penguins.

The expedition team included researchers from WCS, the Center for Quaternary Research, Antarctic Chilean Institute, and Universidad de Magallanes. The information they gathered serves as a foundation for a new model of private-public, terrestrial-marine conservation of the Admiralty Sound, Karukinka Natural Park (a WCS private protected area), and De Agostini National Park. It will help build a broader vision for bolstering conservation efforts across the Patagonia Sea and Coast.

“This windswept extension of the sea contains remarkable wildlife and represents a great opportunity for Patagonian conservation,” said Dr. Bárbara Saavedra of WCS’s Latin America and Caribbean Program. “The expedition will generate the data needed to understand the ecological needs of the many species that use Admiralty Sound, including humans.”

The team spent nine days in Admiralty Sound (also known as Almirantazgo Fjord) and on its coastline in their second expedition to the sound in the past year. During that time, researchers successfully affixed satellite tags on sub-adult southern elephant seals, the first such devices used for this seal population. The tags will enable researchers to follow the seals remotely as they travel offshore. The conservationists named the first tagged seal “Koy,” a word meaning “sea” in the language of the Selk’nam people, the original inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego. The researchers also banded adult albatrosses and collected blood samples for health and genetic analysis.

The researchers also spotted a small colony of leopard seals (the only one known to exist outside Antarctica), sei whales, more than 100 rockhopper penguins, and a small group of king penguins. Many of these species travel between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.

“Admiralty Sound will become a key part of the conservation model for South America’s Southern Cone,” said Dr. Steven Sanderson, WCS President and CEO. “The sound will become one gem in a string of marine protected areas that WCS expects to strengthen in coming years.”

Since 2004, WCS has owned and managed Karukinka Natural Park, the largest protected area on the main island of Tierra del Fuego. The 728,960-acre park protects the world’s southernmost stands of old growth forests as well as grasslands, rivers, and wetlands. With the assistance of global investment bank Goldman, Sachs & Co., which donated the lands to WCS, Karukinka has been transformed into a flagship for wildlife conservation in Patagonia. It is now supported by an advisory board made up of local scientific and business sector representatives who provide recommendations on the park’s development and serves as a model demonstrating how the private sector can get involved in conservation activities worldwide.

Since the early 1960s, WCS has been committed to conserving wildlife and wild places of the Southern Cone of South America. In that time, WCS has helped create protected areas to safeguard populations of Magellanic penguins, South American sea lions, southern elephant seals, and southern right whales.

During the 1980s and 1990s, WCS expanded its activities to include other marine sites, and recently helped establish the Patagonia Coastal Zone Management Plan. In terrestrial regions, WCS is working on the Patagonian steppes to safeguard habitats of fox, puma, mara, and Andean cat.

“The Karukinka Marine program expects to promote and advance conservation of marine wildlife in Chile and the Southern Cone through the integration of science into management. This expedition is an important step in this process,” added Dr. Saavedra.

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