Community-led Conservation in Catamarca

Research posts

This February, I was once again part of a field expedition to the remote wetlands of the high-altitude plateau—or altiplano—of northwestern Argentina to study flamingos. 

This time, our team was following up previous visits with more in-depth sampling, testing some new technology—including our first foray counting flamingos using a drone—and training residents of El Peñón and Antofagasta de la Sierra, the two communities closest to the wetlands, as environmental monitors. Close to 50 participants, including teachers, mountain guides, and business owners, took part in these trainings.

 

Two flamingos stand side by side in shallow water and another floats nearby, all dipping their heads below the surface.

Factors like bill shape and wing color help volunteers identify flamingo species, like these Andean Flamingos.

© F. Arengo


The importance of having these trained eyes in the community can’t be overstated—it was a local mountaineering guide that sounded the alarm in December 2015 that Andean Flamingos were dying in unusually high numbers in Laguna Grande, our most important flamingo wetland in Catamarca Province.

At the time, we put together a rapid response team that collected water samples and examined dead flamingos, which led us to the conclude that a lack of food was responsible for the die-off.  While these wetland habitats are highly variable and flamingos are adapted to moving around to find food in other wetlands, extreme conditions brought about by changing global climate, habitat degradation, and disturbance, decrease options available. 

 

Two flamingos stand side by side in shallow water, dipping their heads below the surface.

A pair of flamingos feeding in the wetlands of South America.

© F. Arengo


Follow-up sampling and observations three months later showed that Laguna Grande had recovered to usual water and nutrient levels. Local bird populations have followed suit, and this year, we were pleased to find 16,500 Puna Flamingos at the site. We even found some 300 Puna Flamingos engaging in elaborate group courtship displays there—a breathtaking sight for even seasoned flamingo watchers.

 

A group of well over 50 flamingos stand next to one another in shallow water.

Flamingos gather in large groups to feed, rest, and find mates.

© F. Arengo


This expedition also took us on a visit to a new mining camp at Laguna Tres Quebradas, a salt flat within a basin of several wetlands, nestled among some of South America’s highest peaks. The miners are exploring for lithium—an essential element of rechargeable batteries in smartphones, laptops, and electric vehicles that is subject to growing demand.  

 

Two flamingos fly over water.

Puna Flamingos flying low over their wetland habitat in Argentina. 

© F. Arengo


Many communities, though, are worried that lithium mining, which uses vast amounts of water, will deplete an already scarce resource, draining the lifeblood of all life in these remote deserts. Our team met with mining company executives and provincial authorities to promote developing this industry within a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, like Laguna Tres Quebradas—a designation that allows for mining, but expects the practice to follow principles of sustainable and wise use. Continued dialogue among all stakeholders will be critical in the next few years to ensure the conservation of vulnerable populations of flamingos, wetlands that are increasingly under threat, and landscapes of spectacular beauty. 

Read about Dr. Arengo’s previous expeditions to the altiplano here.