Eco-philanthropists to the rescue of wildlife?
Former CEOs lead a pack of eco-philanthropists who are bankrolling parks to conserve pristine land and wildlife.
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Their newest national park project sits beneath the snowcapped Andes where guanacos (Andean llamas) graze the steppe near the Argentine border, a seven-hour drive from the closest airport down the dirt road called the Austral Highway. This tract, where the Tompkinses have a home, used to be one of the biggest sheep ranches in the country, with hundreds of miles of fencing that the national park staff and a rotating group of volunteers are now removing. The land was overgrazed; now, with all the animals sold off except those for employee consumption, vast fields of grass thrive.Skip to next paragraph
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Former ranchers have been retrained as park rangers. They once hunted pumas to protect their sheep; now they track them with satellite collars to ensure their protection.
"Not in my dreams did I think I would ever work in conservation," says Eduardo Castro, a rancher-turned-park ranger. "But this is my job. Not all wanted it. They say, 'What is there to do without animals?' "
The Tompkinses cut their teeth on two earlier national parks, in Argentina and Chile, and the controversial Pumalin Park that will be donated to Chile as a national park upon their deaths.
Such largess hasn't always been welcome. At worst, when opposition to Pumalin heated up in the 1990s, the Tompkinses were accused, among other things, of settling here to allow a nuclear waste dump for the US. The left-leaning government dispatched military planes that flew 100 meters over their heads. Death threats were not uncommon. Local media accused them of removing peasants from their land; they say they have always bought land legally from the rightful, often absent, owners.
Hostilities have ebbed, but even in 2004, Ms. Tompkins's purchase here in the Aisén region nearly fell through when the press caught wind that the Tompkinses would be new residents. Business leaders from as far away as Santiago banded together to outbid the Americans to save the symbol of the ranching life in these parts.
Patricio Ulloa, the mayor of Cochrane, the closest town to the future park, led that fight. "We do not see how conservation will contribute to the development of this town," says Mr. Ulloa. "The Tompkinses are not well loved here, or in Chile [generally]."
It's a sentiment that those working in conservation in Chile understand, but hope will change. Chile's right-of-center president-elect, Sebastian Piñera, a billionaire who created a reserve on Chiloe Island, sought the Tompkinses' advice when he was buying the land. And they say that as tourists begin visiting, towns like Cochrane will see a boost.
For now, however, "[Locals] say, 'Look at this grass, it is a gold mine that you are not using' or 'You are breeding the pumas that eat my sheep,' " says Cristian Saucedo, wildlife coordinator of the Future Patagonia National Park. "It is hard if you have that mentality to understand how protected areas can help the local population."
That's why suspicions persist, from local farmers in Patagonia to newspaper vendors in Santiago, all of whom know the Tompkins name the way Americans know the name Bill Gates.