National Geographic : 1981 Jul
When my road-weary family-wife Merry, daughters Shelly and Katia, newborn son Jeremy Sundance, and dog Pupsy-and I reached Patagonia's sea of shrub and grass, we saw only a handful of animals in this one time guanaco stronghold. That's why we had come all the way to Isla Grande, the big island of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. About a tenth of the total guanaco population is on this Denmark-size island. Most live on the west ern, Chilean side, where huge ranches, or estancias, offer sanctuary from hunters. With its 180,000 sheep and 1,000 horses, Estancia Cameron on Tierra del Fuego embraced half a million acres. Part was Patagonian grassland that overlapped the northern half of the big island. The rest lay in a patchwork of damp beech forests, peat bogs, meadows, lakes, and mountains. When we arrived, we were taken in hand by Eduardo Barria, a weathered, soft spoken sheep rider who headed the workers' cooperative that operated the estancia. We quickly learned that Tierra del Fuego, "land of fire," was misnamed by Ferdinand Magellan. It should be Tierra del Viento, "land of wind." Cold gales blow ceaselessly and force one to bundle in layers of clothing. Yet this grim climate, plus the island's isola tion, has deterred human occupation and protected the hard-pressed guanaco. At Eduardo's direction we stationed our camper beside an unoccupied tin house next to his home. We used the camper as kitchen and lavatory, and spread out our sleeping and research gear in the house. For heat we had two potbellied stoves imported long ago from England. Daughters Shelly, nine, and Katia, seven, hauled the wood needed to satisfy the stoves' prodigious appetites. Hardly had we settled in when we added a new member to our family: a day-old baby guanaco. It was late December, the start of the austral summer and the guanaco's brief birth season. One of Eduardo's sheep riders had come upon the chulengo when it was only hours old and had brought it in. We weren't ready for guests, but there was no refusing this bundle of soft fur with spindly legs, supple neck, and soulful black eyes and eyelashes. We named her Ona, for Rivals for attention, Ona and the family dog, Pupsy, play with Merry, the author'swife. Bottle-fed as an orphaned infant, Ona graduatedin several months to a typical guanaco diet of grasses and shrubs and, atypically, an occasionalpage of field notes. "At night we'd keep her on the porch, as much as our heartswould allow," says Dr. Franklin,a wildlife ecologist who has studied guanacos five years. More often, her bleats would gain her entree to the house and a spot by the stove. One day a pack of ranch dogs cornered Ona and tore into her. Though bleeding badly, she limped home. But nothing could be done, and she died. Once a crucial resourcefor the Indians of South America's Patagonia region, the guanacoprovided hides for tents, wool for robes, sinew for sewing, meat for food, and bones for tools.