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The largest salt lake in South America becomes a national park

A new national law in Argentina protects one million acres of wetland in Córdoba province. What does this mean for Mar Chiquita and its local wildlife and communities?

By Gege Li on July 07, 2022   duration

A flamingo in Ansenuza National Park in Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Natura International)
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On June 30, the Argentinian government announced the new Ansenuza National Park, comprising the Mar Chiquita salt lake in Argentina’s Córdoba province and its surrounding wetlands. It was the final step to officially establishing more than one million acres of wetland as a protected area. The process began after the provincial law ceding jurisdiction for the park was passed in an unanimous vote by Cordoba province in August 2021.

Ansenuza National Park in Mar Chiquita, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Natura International)

Mar Chiquita can be a rosy sight. The salt lake—the largest in South America and the fifth largest in the world—supports more than 300,000 flamingos from three different species (the Andean, Chilean and James’ Flamingos). Numerous other species of shorebirds and waterbirds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have also made Mar Chiquita their home.

“It is one of the most important wetlands in South America,” explains Lucila Castro, a Re:wild associate and Argentine director at Natura International, a nature conservation NGO based in Argentina. “The region is rich in biodiversity and many species, especially migratory birds, depend on the lake for survival. Mar Chiquita also supports the local community by providing a source of tourism. Sadly, it is facing many threats: climate change, water diversion and pollution, hunting and deforestation. That is why we were fighting to give the lake and wetlands the highest protection as a national park.”

A Maned Wolf, one of the species that live in savanna habitats near Ansenuza National Park in Argentina and will benefit from the protections the new park affords. (Photo courtesy of Natura International)

Since 2017, Natura Argentina, Aves Argentinas and Wyss Foundation, together with the National Park Service and other environmental NGOs, have been working with national, regional and local governments and communities to protect the Mar Chiquita area from further destruction. After many conversations with stakeholders about a future national park, discussing strategies for its creation, and collecting information on the wetland (such as the number of flamingos that inhabit it), the multidisciplinary team collaborating on the project have finally reached their goal.

“The national designation is critical for the area’s protection because many of the threats to the area originate upstream, and so a national and multi-jurisdiction response is needed to protect this jewel of the continent” says Byron Swift, part of the wildlands team at Re:wild, which is supporting additional projects to create more protected natural areas in Argentina.

Ansenuza National Park in Mar Chiquita, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Natura International)

Uncertain journey

Now with new national protection, not only species living inside Mar Chiquitawill be better shielded from outside threats, but wildlife in the surrounding region will be as well. Vulnerable mammal species like the Collared Peccary, Jaguarundi and Pampas Fox live in nearby savannah habitats. The Chaco Tortoise and Maned Wolf, are both at risk of extinction. Mar Chiquita will of course also protect the huge population of flamingos at the lake, which at its biggest can comprise anywhere from five to 50% of the global population of Andean, Chilean and James’ species.

Ansenuza National Park in Mar Chiquita, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Natura International)

From uncertain to passion

One of the focuses of the project was to connect the vision and benefits of a national park with local communities, who will be most affected by the new legislation. The communities in Mar Chiquita and nearby towns will benefit from sustainable tourism in the region, and that could lead to an increased appreciation and understanding of the surrounding wildlife and how they can exist in harmony. A fear of the unknown and what national park status actually entails meant that many were uncertain about the project at first, says Castro.

Ansenuza National Park in Mar Chiquita, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Natura International)

“Initially people may not have known what to think about the national park, but once they learned how it would help, they were really enthusiastic and wanted to be involved,” she says. “Eventually we had 11 municipalities on board and government officials passionately supporting the park, which is amazing and quite moving! The local people are the main actors, and it is important that they were given the choice in the project. We just provided the tools to help them decide."

Camera traps, for example, funded by Re:wild, have served as valuable equipment for not only sampling populations of wildlife around Mar Chiquita—even discovering new species for the region—but for education, too. Among the project’s various activities, conservation teams have been using the information from camera traps to work with children in schools and teach them why the lake is so important to protect. Castro says: “Based on all the species we identified using the camera traps, such as Pumas, small cats and deer, there is so much more out there than even I realized. We need to understand more about the flora and fauna in Mar Chiquita so that we know how to save it. Working with the community to promote sustainability and natural heritage shows people what we have – and this national park shows that they want to take care of it.”

About the author

Gege Li

Gege Li is a freelance science writer based in London, UK and was previously an intern at both New Scientist and Chemistry World magazine. Though her background is in biochemistry, she is also passionate about writing about wildlife, the environment, health and technology, to communicate important scientific research and ideas to the public.

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