The Andean Deer (Chilean huemul) (Hippocamelus bisulcus) is a rare and poorly studied deer that lives only in the isolated temperate rainforests of southern Chile and neighbouring parts of Argentina. Despite being one of Chile’s national symbols, the world population is believed now to be reduced to only 1,000 - 2,000 individuals. In Chile, the species is classified as in Danger of Extinction (UICN Red Data Book; CONAF, 1993). Huemul is a key large herbivore species in the temperate rainforest ecosystem, and has important local cultural status as well as international significance for wildlifeconservation.
The main causes of the decline in the population of huemul are habitat destruction, the introduction of domestic animals, disease and hunting (Povilitis, 1998). There are some protected areas where huemul are found, but populations are small and extremely localised. Tamango National Reserve, 6900 hectares of temperate rainforest, deciduous rainforest and Patagonian grassland (pampa) is one such are and provides sanctuary for the largest remaining population of huemul in Chile (CODEFF, 1997). Expedition Raleigh has been monitoring huemul for a number of years and estimates that the reserve has a population of around 80 animals (Raleigh, 1998). Elsewhere, sightings and tracking records suggest that fragmented huemul populations still exist in other naturally protected regions. For example, evidence of the presence of huemul was recently recorded in Lago Las Torres National Reserve and Maniguales Reserve, both to the north of Coyhaique, during a recent survey by Dr. Andrew Smith, a British wildlife biologist. North of the Patagonian ecosystem, huemul still survive in Nevados de Chillan (Central Chile).
It is essential to restore natural populations of huemul not only inside protected areas but also in nearby farmlands. Povilitis (1998) maintains that it is an urgent priority to evaluate habitat change and other threats to the huemul, such as poaching and population fragmentation. Proposed measures include protection of habitat core areas, conservation of connecting habitat between sites and core areas, land management practices limiting livestock, logging, and development impacts, and, if necessary, introductions. For the long-term conservation of the huemul, renewed connectivity between central Chilean and Patagonia populations is recommended. Overall, fragmentation may cause the final decline of huemul in Chile
The restoration of the deer and its habitat represents a priority in Chilean wildlife conservation as huemul are a key species of temperate rainforest - one of the most reduced ecosystems not only within Chile, but also globally. Huemul population decline represents forest decline and the possible loss of one of the four main wild ungulates of Chile. Habitat fragmentation and competition with wild and farm animals seems to affect huemul population viability, but this issue has not been assessed objectively. This study will test the hypothesis that huemul population decline results from a combination of competition for resources and disease transmission from other wild and domestic herbivores
A possible wild competitor is the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), one of the four species of South American Camelids, that has been until recently itself an endangered species in Chile. Today, as a result of protection from hunting, it has a fast population growth rate in many regions. Two main populations are out of danger of extinction in the XI and XII Regions of Chile. In both areas huemul is also present and might, in sympatric conditions, be outcompeted by guanaco. There is certainly a degree of niche differentiation in that huemul are more commonly found in the forest, while guanaco are associated with the nearby pampas. However, early travel accounts and archaeological evidence suggest that the past geographical distribution of huemul included open vegetation zones, such as the steppe (Patagonian pampa), indicating that the idea that the huemul has always been restricted to forested habitats must be revised (Diaz, 1993). In addition, farming and logging have pushed guanaco and huemul into smaller patches of protected land and today guanaco population recovery could be suppressing huemul. This is particularly important point for huemul conservation, because the two main regions where huemul is protected are surrounded by sheep farms and fast-growing guanaco populations. Sheep farming has been blamed for decades as a major cause of huemul decline by competition for food and the transmission of disease. However, no single study has been made to study the effect of sheep farming on huemul populations.