The Gran Chaco is one of South America’s last truly wild environments but its ecosystem is deteriorating. Conservation biologist Erika Cuéllar has been training local people to protect its extraordinary biodiversity.
Dust-coloured guanaco, the wild ancestors of the llama, once thrived in the parched grasslands of southern Bolivia. Then humans moved in, clearing the trees and building fences and hunting the graceful animals for their meat.
It is conservation of the entire Chaco that motivates me. The fate of the guanaco portends the fate of a whole range of species that are smaller and less often seen.
Guanaco numbers have plummeted. In the Gran Chaco, a vast wilderness that spans several countries, only three isolated populations of 200 or so remain – in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.
Cuéllar began by training 17 indigenous Bolivians as “parabiologists”, teaching them methods of conservation. The men began documenting the plight of the guanaco and advocating for more responsible land use. Cuéllar is empowering those living closest to the land to be responsible for protecting it.
Her work is a ray of hope amidst the deterioration of the Chaco ecosystem. She is expanding her parabiologist training programme into Argentina and Paraguay in collaboration with local conservation biologists and is encouraging the three national governments to work together.
Cuéllar was chosen by National Geographic as one of its 17 Emerging Explorers for 2013, and was named 2013 Person of the Year for social achievement by Bolivia’s press. She is exporting the parabiologist concept to Oman, where arid environments are again overlooked and local people can be deeply involved in conservation processes.
1 million km²
Area of the Gran Chaco
People living in the Gran Chaco
Savannah in Gran Chaco lost over past 40 years