A year after its declaration, Ansenuza National Park is working to diversify the local economy while protecting iconic wildlife
By Molly Bergen on December 13, 2023
As the setting sun dipped low across the mud flats, a vibrant pink line appeared on the horizon. That was my first glimpse of the flamingos.
Here on the shores of Argentina’s Mar Chiquita, the largest salt lake in South America, hundreds of thousands of flamingos breed and nest in the summer months. Their presence was a major factor in the government of Argentina voting in June 2022 to create Ansenuza National Park to better protect more than 1 million acres of lake, wetland, forest and savannah ecosystems — as well as attract more tourists to the region.
But support for the park wasn’t always a given — it took years of campaigning by a small but dedicated group of people who gradually convinced politicians and nearby residents that creating such a park would be an asset for the 15 communities on and around the lake.
On a January evening, three of these people took me out to see the place they’ve worked so hard to protect: Lucila Castro, the director of Natura Argentina and a Re:wild associate whose love for nature was forged growing up on her grandfather’s farm nearby; Maria Laura Josens, a former academic who recently returned to her home country of Argentina to do more hands-on conservation work with the NGO Aves Argentinas; and Gustavo Ramon Cerri, a mechanic and former hunter who almost single-handedly has built a nature tourism project on the land where we went walking, near the borders of the park.
The state of Córdoba (along with much of Argentina) is in its third year of major drought, and the water level was very low, so we walked more than a mile across the mud flats toward the pink shimmer of flamingos in the distance. Eventually we realized that they were too far away for us to reach on foot before sunset, so we abandoned our plan and sat down in the dried mud in the fading light, Castro, Josens and Cerri passing a thermos of mate between them. Our chatter faded into a reverent silence as we watched the sun disappear over the horizon. Afterward in the evening twilight, we bounced back to camp in the back of a pick-up truck through clouds of butterflies amid the coos of hundreds of doves settling down for the night.
Only a few years ago, this land was a degraded cattle ranch that had been decimated by fire. How did these conservationists encourage such a turn around and make the national park a reality — and will it be enough to protect this unique but threatened place? Over a year after the park’s declaration, there are clear signs of progress, but more remains to be done.
Out of the world’s six flamingo species, three make their home in Mar Chiquita for at least part of the year; the Chilean Flamingo resides year-round, whereas the Andean and Puna Flamingos migrate there during the winter when their regular breeding grounds freeze over. Estimates indicate that as much as half of the global population of these three species may reside at Ansenuza during at least part of the year.
The flamingos may be Ansenuza’s most famous residents, but they have lots of company. In addition to the salt lake itself, the area in and around the park contains a range of unique ecosystems from wetlands to mud flats to dry temperate forests, all of which support a remarkable diversity of wildlife. Pumas, Maned Wolves and Geoffroy’s Cats hunt small prey in the thick grasses. More than 300 species of waterbirds flock by the thousands, including Wilson’s Phalarope, a species that migrates here from western North America every year. Mar Chiquita is thought to be the most important inland wetland for shorebirds on the entire continent.
The lake has long served as a source of local livelihoods through activities such as fishing and livestock-farming. But since the lake has become saltier over the years, reducing the fish population, and the ecosystem has been degraded by unsustainable farming practices, the nearby towns are in need of new sources of income. This is especially true of the towns on the lake’s northern edge, home to poorer residents who lack basic amenities such as drinking water and rely on the rich grasses that grow on the lake shore during the rainy season to graze their cattle.
For 20 years, a multi-use provincial reserve has covered part of the area. However, Castro, who grew up in the town of Miramar on the lake’s southern coast, recalls that the reserve had very limited resources, which made it difficult to protect effectively.
“We never saw a ranger outside the town,” she says. “They didn’t have enough resources, like a truck, fuel … nothing.”
As a result, several threats have long gone unchecked. Agricultural runoff has seeped into the lake from the northern cattle fields, and the fires that ranchers start to encourage grass regrowth for their livestock can quickly burn out of control in extreme drought conditions. Invasive feral pigs run rampant through the fragile landscape, trampling vital habitat for endangered species. Teenagers on dirt bikes and off-roading vehicles tear through the mud flats, disturbing bird nests; at the beginning of the pandemic, Castro and Josens would patrol the beaches themselves to try to stop people from treading on bird habitat.
Although Adrián Walker, the mayor of Miramar who is currently in his fourth term in office, was initially skeptical of what creating a national park would mean for his town, he has since become a big supporter of the park, “… for two main reasons. One, the care of the resource with the best protection level we have in the country, which is also recognized internationally. And on the other hand, the possibility or opportunity for the development of ecotourism, not only for our locality, but for the whole region.”
Walker estimates that 80% of Miramar’s revenue already comes from tourism, a figure that has grown substantially under his tenure. Although Miramar is home to only a few thousand people, it receives almost all the region’s tourists as it’s the only town in the area with direct lake access. Miramar’s waterfront is a busy place during peak season, filled with bathing suit-clad tourists perusing flamingo wind chimes and other souvenirs in the beachside gift shops. Visitors come to eat fish (now usually imported from elsewhere due to the lake’s declining fish catch), sit on the beach, swim in the lake and perhaps take a boat tour to see the famous flamingos. But currently tourist activities are mostly restricted to the lakeshore, outside the national park’s boundaries, and there are limited options for people who want to learn more about and see the region’s iconic wildlife for themselves.
Castro sees huge opportunities to expand nature-viewing activities and teach local residents and visitors just how special this place is.
“When I grew up here, we didn’t pay attention to the birds, to the lake — it was just a beach and a place to go for a swim,” she says. “So the rest of the towns are the same. That is why we needed to have more people involved in the use of the lake — but in another way.”
Over several years, a group of NGOs —including Natura Argentina, Aves Argentinas and others— worked together to build local support for establishing a national park. The NGOs convened a group of 11 mayors —including Mayor Walker from Miramar— from the nearby towns and discussed the economic and environmental benefits the park could bring to their communities. The mayors even took a field trip to Iberá National Park elsewhere in Argentina to get a glimpse of the levels of tourism the park could attract with the right investment.
Castro says at the beginning of this process, there were many local concerns about how the national park would impact these communities.
“A lot of fear,” she says. “I remember the mayor of La Paquita, one of the towns really close to here, he took the microphone and said ‘I need to give answers to my people. We are ranchers, we are one of the biggest milk producers of the province, why are you doing this?’ Now they have opened the gate to the national park in their own town. Many local mayors were sitting with their backs to the lake. Now, they are looking toward it — they are doing hikes, they are setting up camping sites. So the mayors changed and the communities got on board. They have been so important to this process, and kept pushing for the national park to happen in the final stretch before it was declared.”
This coalition eventually expanded to mayors of at least 20 towns in the region, all of whom came to support the park. The partners also did outreach in local communities and schools, teaching them about the flamingos living right in their backyards.
Twice a year, scientists and field technicians conduct a ‘flamingo census’ — once during the summer breeding season to get a sense of how the population is expanding, and once in the winter to count the migratory species population. Supported by Natura Argentina (an offshoot of Natura International) and now in partnership with Argentina’s park service and the provincial government, researchers that belong to the High Andres Flamingo Conservationist Group (GCFA) assess the flamingo population by taking thousands of photographs from the ground and from the air via a small airplane. More than 20 years of these surveys have shown the flamingo population here to be stable, and even increasing. In recent years, the census has expanded to include additional waterbird species.
Another crucial way to lay the groundwork for the national park was to fill in the information gaps about which species (particularly mammals, which had rarely been studied) resided here. With funding from Re:wild, Natura Argentina set up camera traps on private lands south and east of the lake. Placement was determined by a variety of factors, including which landowners were receptive to it and whether animals had already been spotted nearby by locals. For example, although Maned Wolves are shy and rarely seen by people in the area, their tracks are frequently observed. The cameras are regularly monitored and rotated to a new location every six months or so.
In addition to confirming the presence of two species previously only suspected to reside in the lake’s vicinity —the Bush Fox and Crab-eating Raccoon— the researchers have observed many interesting behaviors through the camera traps, such as a surprising interaction between a puma and a skunk.
“The Puma would hunt and the skunk would follow it because it knew that somewhere it had left its prey dead,” says Yanina Druetta, a former Natura Argentina staffer who is now continuing her work on camera trapping while working for the national park. “So it was very funny to see the Puma pass by, and two meters away the skunk would follow it.”
The camera traps have also recorded promising information about how certain species are faring. Druetta says the camera trap technicians started “seeing little foxes carrying food 10 times in front of the same camera. So we could assume that they had kits.”
This project is still ongoing; once the camera-trap studies to the west and north of the lake have been completed, the researchers will create a map of the mammal species confirmed to live in the entire wetland. But the results so far already tell researchers one important thing: there are lots of species here, many of which are unprotected and whose presence came as a surprise to locals because no one has thought to look for them before.
“I was amazed, because even though the agricultural frontiers keep advancing, we still have a lot of species,” says Castro. “It’s not like we need to rewild them…we need to take care of the species that we still have, so they can just grow.”
After seven years of discussion and petitioning the government, numerous changes in political leadership, a global pandemic, and testimonies before Argentina’s Congress the park was finally officially established in June 2022. Ansenuza National Park prohibits all human activities besides science and tourism within its boundaries, and even those activities will only be allowed in designated areas. However, certain other activities will still be permitted in the provincial reserve nearby, such as allowing northern communities to continue to use the lakeside grasslands to graze cattle.
More than a year after the park’s declaration, it is not yet open for visitors; more remains to be done first to finalize the management plan and build more infrastructure to accommodate tourists.
After years working in national parks all over Argentina, park ranger Matias Carpineto returned to his home state of Córdoba in 2022 to become the head of Ansenuza National Park. He now leads a team of 10 staff —including rangers, technicians and park firefighters— who are focused on preparing the park for public visitors. This involves everything from constructing park service buildings (including a visitor center and ranger housing) to building nature trails and erecting educational signs to conducting community outreach with nearby communities and schools. To the north of the lake, the park service is also improving access to drinking water for the towns that have previously gone without it, as well as working on a fire management plan to allow these communities to continue their livestock activities while reducing fire risk.
“A national park has to bring some benefit to the people,” Carpineto says. “And mainly to the people who live around the park because they are the ones we need, above all, to take care of this resource and to understand why it is important.”
Right now most of the region isn’t yet set up for nature tourists, but Gustavo Cerri is changing that. A mechanic by trade, Cerri first got involved with conservation work here several years ago after attending a meeting organized by Aves Argentinas. He now leases a former cattle ranch called Rancho Viejo outside the park’s boundaries, which he is slowly helping to restore native wetland.
Cerri set up a few camera-traps on horseback, which have documented Pumas, Pampas Foxes and other species on this land. He has since built a few trails through the dense vegetation and maintains them himself using his ancient pick-up truck. After the pandemic led to a global shutdown (and particularly strict restrictions in Argentina), Cerri occupied himself by building a two-room cabin where bird-watchers and other wildlife enthusiasts can stay overnight. Though the accommodations are rustic, the cabin has screened windows, a flush toilet and plenty of info about the local wildlife. It also includes an outdoor barbecue where guests can enjoy asado and a beer after a day out hiking, kayaking or otherwise enjoying nature.
In the past year, about 500 people have stayed at the ranch.
“It fills me with pride when people come and tell you that the place is fantastic,” he says. “Someday we will be known in the world.”
Cerri hopes to grow the operation but also notes that keeping visitor numbers low will be best for the place — and the kind of visitors he wants to attract.
“I try to have small groups of people come,” he says. "Otherwise all the charm of the forest is lost. You have a lot of people and everything gets messed up. You have to collect cigarettes, you have to collect the plastic…I want another kind of people, the people who come, who like nature, take pictures, are much more careful in that sense.”
Of course, simply creating a national park is not a solution in itself. The long-term viability of Ansenuza’s ecosystems and species — and its local economy — will highly depend on continuous efforts to combat threats and ensure that nearby communities truly benefit from these efforts. To that end, it’s essential that the park will directly or indirectly provide jobs and alternative livelihood opportunities for people whose only other options may depend on continuing to exploit these ecosystems.
Castro uses the agricultural runoff as an example.
“Now you have a lot of chemicals going into the lake because of pesticides,” she says. “My hope is that someday, not too far away, they can keep having cattle, but not like now, where we’re destroying everything. If we have tourism, that [cattle ranching] will be less, and this will be more.”
As scientific research continues through the bird census and the camera-trap monitoring, the park staff can expand their knowledge about what areas of the park are most important to protect and where tourists are most likely to see wildlife. In addition, since the nature tourism activities here will be starting from close to zero, researchers will have an easier time tracking the impact of tourism on wildlife populations and coastal management, as well as factors such as stray dogs, boats and motorbikes.
This information could also make the case for expanding protections beyond the park’s current borders. For example, despite the abundant wildlife it shelters, Rancho Viejo is not currently part of the national park.
“We are a large wetland, and the dynamics of the wetland also depend on external factors, not only within the protected area,” Druetta explains. “So, it is important to expand research.”
Castro says that despite all the work that remains, it’s a huge relief to have the support from the national government.
“We have a lot of work to do —it’s just the beginning— but it’s not the same as working by ourselves, or just with the provincial government with no money. It’s like, I can sleep during the night now, you know?”
She recalls a recent moment where this really hit home: “I remember I was driving to Miramar a couple of months ago, and the park director’s truck was in front of me. I was arriving into my town, and…it was just, like ‘They are finally here.’”
Since beginning her career as a zookeeper, Molly Bergen has spent more than 10 years telling stories for a range of environmental NGOs. Covering everything from turtle nest guardians in Cambodia to community forests in the Congo, she is particularly passionate about conservation projects that create a "win-win" for both species and local people.