Ranchers in Chile are reporting increased conflict between their livestock and guanacos Lama guanicoe (a wild camelid species). We wanted to know what was causing this perceived increased competition, so we used a novel method in conservation conflict studies to find out what they thought were the drivers of this conflict. By employing a subjective theories methodology, we found that ranchers blamed the increased aridity in recent years for reducing the availability of pasture, which meant that there was more competition for grazing between livestock and guanacos. As the area became drier, guanacos were thought to come down from the mountains in search of better grazing, coming into conflict with the herds of cattle.

Camera-trap image of guanacos.

Traditional ranchers in central Chile use summer pastures in the Andes Mountains, where livestock graze in areas shared with wildlife. It is here that, in the last few years, conflicts have intensified between people grazing their livestock and the State Services that protect wildlife, because of differences in how these groups want wildlife to be managed.

Farmers accuse the guanaco, a native and IUCN-listed Vulnerable herbivore, of competing for pastures with livestock, which farmers believe has intensified in recent years because the guanaco population has increased in the summer grazing pastures of the Province of Petorca, in the Valparaíso Region.

Through our research, we discovered that the problem was more complex than it initially appeared: at first glance, it seemed that farmers were blaming the guanaco as the sole cause of pasture competition. But there was a key element that ultimately caused competition for pastures: climate change. Farmers claimed that the cause of all changes in the mountain range was ultimately caused by climate change, including what would eventually be reflected in a problem by competition for pastures.

Solange Vargas and community representatives at a local workshop discussing guanacos.

Since the 1970s, there has been a 3 cm decline in snowfall per decade in the region which is thought to reduce pressure on guanacos, as heavy snowfall can limit guanaco population growth. With warmer, drier winters, ranchers believed the guanaco populations have increased in the area, leading to the herds of these wild camelids roaming further in search of new grazing.

As climate change begins to alter our environments, we are already seeing increased competition for resources between people and wildlife. These tensions will probably worsen as global temperatures continue to rise, which is why it is so important that we act now to limit greenhouse gas emissions, to benefit people and wildlife.

Solange Vargas with her field team in the study area, showing the areas in the mountains where livestock graze freely.

The conservation conflict between guanaco and livestock is also a reflection of other, deeper demands. Farmers claim to have been abandoned by the State and its public policies, and they feel relegated to second place over threatened wildlife. The ranchers convey this feeling of abandonment to the State through repeated complaints about the offending species. We hope this study will help natural resource managers and researchers realise that considering the ecological knowledge of local communities is paramount when analysing these types of complex socio-ecological problems.

Because human behaviour is more often driven by perceptions of reality rather than reality itself, we should spend more time trying to understand how people think the world works, and base conservation interventions on these perceptions, rather than focusing exclusively on education as a way to change behaviour.

All photos: Solange Vargas.

Researchers: Solange Vargas (University of La Serena), Pablo Castro-Carrasco (University of La Serena), Niki Rust (Newcastle University) and José Luis Riveros (Pontifical Catholic University of Chile)

The article Climate change contributing to conflicts between livestock farming and guanaco conservation in central Chile: a subjective theories approach is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Solange Vargas is a biologist working in wildlife conservation in Chile, currently completing a PhD in Applied Ecology, at the University of La Serena. She has been working in support of the conservation of wild camelids in Chile for over 7 years and she also has more than 10 years’ experience working with local communities, especially from rural and Indigenous sectors. She is currently leading the conservation project ‘Creating coexistence between livestock and wildlife in Northern Central Chile’, which seeks to harmonise extensive livestock farming with guanaco Lama guanicoe conservation through interdisciplinary and participatory approaches involving farmers and state institutions.