Erika Cuéllar
Erika Cuéllar believes that it is impossible to conserve the Gran Chaco without involving local communities. Gran Chaco, near the town of San Jose, Bolivia. ©Rolex Awards/Thierry Grobet

Guardian of the Gran Chaco

Erika Cuéllar, known locally as “the biologist of the guanacos”, and a winner for this years Rolex Awards for Enterprise, is one of Bolivia’s few recognized experts in wildlife conservation.

In the parched grasslands of southern Bolivia, only the strong survive. Dust-coloured guanaco, the sturdy wild ancestor of the better known llama, once thrived in the harsh climate. Then humans moved in, clearing the trees and building fences that snared the fleet and graceful animals, and hunting them for their meat.


Guanaco numbers have plummeted. While some 500,000 still roam the vast plains of the Patagonian steppe, 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.

Many threats challenge the guanaco’s survival, most notably illegal poaching. Widespread cattle ranching and uncontrolled logging have also plagued the savannah, and so most of the native Chacoan grass – the guanaco’s preferred food – has been invaded in recent decades by woody plants, turning the once open grasslands into scrub and impacting on the guanaco’s ability to forage. If that was not enough, the construction of roads, gas pipelines and a military zone have left small herds of guanaco isolated genetically from each other.

Fate of the guanaco
The plight of the guanaco has been the focus of a young and passionate Bolivian conservation biologist for more than a decade. Born in Bolivia, Erika Cuéllar completed her Ph.D at Oxford University in 2011, writing her thesis on this intriguing camelid, the Chaco’s biggest mammal. Yet Cuéllar says it is not just the guanaco that is at stake. “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,” she says.

The Gran Chaco is a vast and biologically diverse expanse of grasslands and dry forest. Cuéllar says the Chaco has not received its fair share of attention from scientists. Researchers are more attracted to the massive Amazon region to the north, yet the Chaco, which may appear bleak by comparison, hosts an amazing variety of plant and animal life from white-lipped peccaries and collared anteaters to flamingos and jaguars.

Cuéllar hopes to rescue the Chaco from its environmental crisis by enlisting local residents as allies in conservation. Her approach holds promise not just for the troubled region and its iconic guanaco, but also for the way conservation biology is practised in the Americas.

Governments in the region have responded slowly to the challenges of conservation. An exception was the creation in 1997 of the Kaa-lya National Park in eastern Bolivia, where Cuéllar started working in 1999, alongside indigenous people who manage the park to improve grassland management to benefit the guanaco and other wildlife.

At Kaa-lya, Cuéllar trained 17 indigenous Bolivians as “parabiologists” teaching them scientific methods of conservation. Mostly hunters, under Cuéllar’s tutelage, the men were transformed into skilled conservationists who began documenting the plight of the guanaco and advocating for more responsible land use. Empowering local people as fully fledged investigators, Cuéllar made it possible for those living closest to the land to be responsible for protecting it.

Cuéllar has confronted several obstacles in her push for participatory conservation, including resistance to a woman taking such a prominent role. Unbowed, she fought to include women in the training programme. “Among indigenous groups, women have been traditionally barred from certain kinds of work. Hunters, for example, have almost always been men. I’ve tried to include women in the parabiologist programme, but without much success. Nonetheless, there are some young women who want to be investigators and resource managers. There is now one woman parabiologist, and others are studying these themes in the local university. So there’s hope,” Cuéllar says.

Ray of hope
Cuéllar’s work is itself a ray of hope amidst the dramatic deterioration of the Chaco ecosystem. With her parabiologist colleagues, she identified threats to the guanaco’s survival, and has “successfully involved the local indigenous community in its protection. The results have been positive and the guanaco population has significantly increased as a result,” says Hernán Torres, a Chilean conservationist.

local residents
Erika Cuéllar is enlisting local residents as allies in conservation.
Photo: Courtesy of Erika Cuéllar

“Erika is extremely effective and very courageous,” says Louise Emmons, an adjunct researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. “She has single-handedly conserved the guanaco. She got the conservation programme going and got the local people to stop hunting almost completely. Conservation can’t be imposed from the outside. It only works if people see that if they leave hunting reserves they have more animals and if they leave trees they have more water. It’s really important to train the locals well so they understand, and Erika has trained many of them. Bolivia is a place where it’s hard to be a woman leader, but people listen to her. She’s very good with people and she doesn’t let anything stop her.”

Cuéllar’s dedication to community-based conservation in the Chaco has earned the 40-year-old biologist a Rolex Award. This will allow her to expand her parabiologist training programme into areas of the Chaco inside Argentina and Paraguay, crafting a network of citizens working to save their environment and its flagship species.

Cuéllar will also encourage the three national governments that share responsibility for the Chaco to work together in new ways. That can be a tough challenge in a region that has been disputed for more than two centuries, and where foreign interests have often fuelled feuds over control of the arid landscape. In recent years, a drive to grow fuel crops has accelerated deforestation in portions of the Chaco, only making Cuéllar’s campaign more urgent.

Where politicians have failed, Cuéllar believes the people of the Chaco, if supported by the region’s governments, can successfully advocate and maintain a sustainable approach to conservation. She wants the parabiologists to play critical roles in policy-making at all levels, from the local village to the national agencies charged with conservation. Such inclusion will also create jobs for them.

Cuéllar hopes her expanded programme will establish wildlife reserves within community-owned lands and encourage more wildlife-friendly management by ranchers. If that can happen, she believes the guanaco can extend its range and occupy new breeding territories.

She has already begun meeting with resource officials and scientists in all three countries, and is encouraged by new alliances being forged. “The environment of the Chaco is rapidly deteriorating,” says Cuéllar. “Yet we can still protect the guanaco, and what remains of the Chaco, if the three countries work together.”

About the Awards
For more than 35 years Rolex has honoured extraordinary individuals who possess the courage and conviction to take on major challenges. Each Rolex Award for Enterprise is given for a new or ongoing project anywhere in the world – one that deserves support for its capacity to improve lives, or protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage. These projects have touched all aspects of humanity by expanding knowledge or improving life on the planet. To apply, click here.


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