Just over a century ago, the huemul was such a prolific animal in Chile that the rulers decided that this endemic deer should be part of the national shield. Now, in the country, there are only 1,500 specimens of this species, which was declared in danger of extinction in 1993.
Updated to November 2023
The huemul is a Chilean deer that is part of the national shield. Its population, throughout the entire twentieth century, has been drastically exterminated by human beings, either because it is considered a “plague” or as a “sport”, as one of the objectives of the so-called big game.
According to experts, this mammal, whose scientific name is hippocamelus bisulcus and which was baptized huemul by the Mapuches, gradually disappeared due to the destruction of its natural habitat.
The current number of huemules is uncertain, like so many other things related to this animal, because there is no exact census, only estimates. The figures range between 1,500 and 2,500, with most of them on the Chilean side.
1. The main characteristics of the huemul
- The body of the males reaches a length of 163 cm., with a height of a cross of 90 cm. and a short tail of between 10 and 20 cm.
- Its probable weight is between 40 to 100 kg.
- Females are a little bit smaller. They have long ears, about 20 cm., with large elongated glands in front of the eyes.
- Only males have antlers, which have two ends.
- Their hair is thick and dense, and their skin color varies with the seasons of the year, ranging from dark brown to lighter brown or golden yellow with gray spots.
2. What does the huemul eat?
The huemul is a herbivorous animal, which feeds mainly on shrubs, grasses, and tree shoots, as well as lichens found among the rocks, in the high peaks.
The diet of the huemul is determined by the availability of food throughout the year, which in turn depends on the climate, the season of the year, the characteristics of the terrain, the biological cycles of the vegetables, and other variables, mainly ecological. Many plants, which form their diet, dry up, lose their leaves, and are no longer used, at least for a few months.
In the Nevados de Chillán, the annual diet of the huemul is composed of 46% herbs and 31% shrubs.
The species of the herbaceous stratum correspond to alstroemerias, geraniums, orchids, bush violets, and valerian. Among the bushes, the maitén is his favorite.
During the winter, the availability of herbs and pastures decreases, so their diet becomes shrubby consuming species such as maqui, maitén, oak, baccharis sp, as well as quinchamalí.
According to summer observations, the chilco, the chaura, and the lenga renoval are the preferred species.
3. Where does the huemul live?
The huemules live in small groups of two to three animals; these groups are made up of a female and her offspring. But there are also specimens that lead solitary lives.
In the 16th century, the Huemules inhabited the southwestern region of South America, from parallel 34ºS (Central West of the Province of Mendoza in Argentina and the Metropolitan Region in Chile) to the Strait of Magellan.
At the end of the 19th century, due to the decline in its area of expansion, the number of individuals of this species began to drastically decrease, leaving at the end of the 20th century a few hundred specimens in the Andean Patagonian or subantarctic forest, located south of parallel 38ºS (that is, to the south of the region of La Araucanía, in Chile, and to the southwest of the province of Neuquén, in Argentina).
4. Conservation of the huemul
These deer are now protected in thirteen national parks in Chile and six in Argentina, and it has been classified as an endangered species since 1976.
It is considered in that situation mainly as a consequence of human action: deforestation, habitat fragmentation by the construction of roads and highways, introduction of non-indigenous animals such as cattle or red deer, and poaching. Unfortunately, their populations are increasingly small and isolated.
5. Bicentennial Project
The foundation of villages and agricultural exploitation were the first threats to huemules, which are extremely shy and have not adapted to human presence. The construction of road and energy infrastructure works, and poaching, exacerbated the problem. Also, the introduction of other species of deer and the spread of diseases brought by extensive livestock reduced the number of huemul.
To try to reverse the situation, the Chilean government launched the National Plan for the Conservation of Huemul.
The project seeks to develop research on the species and execute a conservation program to repopulate and reintroduce the huemul.
The biologist Verónica Toledo, from the Huilo-Huilo Foundation (FHH), told BBC Mundo that the initiative is very welcome, especially because there is little information regarding these animals.
The FHH is one of several private Chilean organizations that have implemented their own huemul conservation programs, but this foundation has been – so far – the only one that has managed to reproduce the animals successfully.
In 2005, experts working in the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve, 860 kilometers south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, managed to get two huemules brought from the southern region of Aysén to mate naturally. Hence, the reserve currently has seven copies of the precious animal.