When someone names the province of Santiago del Estero, we usually think about a “chacarera”, the oppressive heat, the native forest with its quebrachos, and even sometimes, the famous Río Dulce. This river runs through the province from north to south and few know the secret that its waters hide when it joins the Mar Chiquita lagoon, in the extreme south of the province.
It is precisely in this sector where the Río Dulce forms an incredible delta that, together with the lagoon, forms an enormous wetland of one million hectares, the largest saline wetland in South America. What stands out most about this ecosystem is its great biodiversity, which gives the Rio Dulce marshes top environmental importance.
Thousands of colonial and migratory birds are concentrated in its diverse aquatic environments, sustaining more than 1% of its populations globally, which is the same as saying that there are hundreds of thousands of individuals. In the associated terrestrial environments there are also endangered mammal species such as the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi), the collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), the chaco tortoise (Chelonoidis chilensis), the neotropical otter (Lontra longicaudis), the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) and numerous species of amphibians, reptiles and fish.
Although the Rio Dulce wetlands are not well known or visited, this ecosystem is recognized worldwide as a RAMSAR site and is part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. Despite these important calling cards, these wetlands are seriously threatened by lack of management and human modification of water regimes.
A part of this wetland is located in the province of Córdoba and another in the province of Santiago del Estero. The area corresponding to Córdoba has been designated as a Provincial Multiple Use Reserve, a relatively weak category that is not enough to guarantee the conservation of its natural and cultural values.This has led to a provincial, national and global campaign to convert this area into a National Park. All levels of government worked on this strategy – led from the third sector by Aves Argentinas and supported by us and numerous organizations and institutions.
In Córdoba, since 2017, fundamental work has been carried out to achieve the declaration, and the creation of the Ansenuza National Park, approved by the Córdoba legislature, is very close. Now it is the turn of the national government, since the law has to be dealt with in the Chamber of Deputies, and in the Senate. Despite all these very important advances, the area corresponding to Santiago del Estero lacks of legal protection or international designation, and until very recently there was little information about what species were present in the place and about the inhabitants who live in close relationship with the wetland.
The Natura Argentina team has been working since 2019 in the Río Dulce wetland area, in the province of Santiago del Estero. One of the main activities that we are carrying out together with the local inhabitants is to update the information on the knowledge and local use of the ecosystems and the different species that can be found in the different environments of the marshes.
By working with local people, we strengthen the collective creation of knowledge, one of the pillars of our conservation work. Thanks to these dialogues, we discover how they perceive their territory, how they relate to the rest of the species and their environments, how they believe that the uses and activities they carry out influence the health of the territory and how they are affected by their daily work dynamics.
The knowledge of the local inhabitants is the key in a process of building strategies to conserve the cultural and environmental values of a place, and the local communities must participate in the decisions made in this regard, because they are part of the territory and the main beneficiaries.
Thanks to work and social information, we were able to identify which vulnerable species are usually seen, and in which environments. With this knowledge, we went out into the field to look for species classified as endangered or vulnerable according to the IUCN list, due to the support of the Rain Forest Trust. The technical work consisted of placing camera traps at different points. In this way we were able to carry out tests to observe footprints, spot fauna and any other type of evidence about the presence of the species.
These efforts were paid off, and the team managed to record a total of 152 bird species, which represents 39.3% of the total number of bird species cited for the province of Santiago del Estero. Of these species, 35 are migratory and use the wetlands during the summer to feed and/or nest. In addition, the presence of 16 species of mammals, six reptiles, six amphibians and three species of fish was confirmed. Of all these species, the presence of the Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus) stands out, which is usually seen during the winter and when the river rises and forms wetlands.
Through interviews, local residents confirmed the presence of the crowned solitary eagle (Buteogallus coronatus), the chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri) and the chaco tortoise (Chelonoidis chilensis), species classified as vulnerable or in danger of extinction by the IUCN. These species are associated with the highlands-native forest, on the margin of the depression of the Rio Dulce marshes.
Creating a protected area (PA) in the delta of the Río Dulce would be a great step for the conservation of these important wetlands. It is a way to safeguard the goods and services that local people use to live, and a resource to protect the ecosystems where all the species that we managed to identify in the Rio Dulce marshes live. For this reason, we will continue working in the area, to advance with the necessary biological studies, to increase and update the information on the presence of species in threatened or endangered categories.
We are also going to continue in contact with local people, not only to hear their opinions, but also to provide them with all the necessary information so that they can be part of the different stages of creating a PA.