Altos de Cantillana Nature Sanctuary

by Marcela Torres

The Conservancy is celebrating a new nature sanctuary created to protect Chile’s highly threatened Mediterranean habitat. The new Altos de Cantillana Nature Sanctuary, established by the Chilean government on April 10, 2010, protects 6,778 acres (2,743 hectares) and is located approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Santiago, Chile’s capital city.

Chile is one of only five countries with Mediterranean environments in the world, and just one percent of its Mediterranean habitat is protected.

The sanctuary’s creation is considered a milestone for private lands conservation in Chile, since it could not have been established without property donations from four individual families who willingly set aside their lands for conservation by the Chilean government.

90 percent of Chile’s Mediterranean habitat lies in private hands, so getting landowners to set aside portions of their own lands for conservation is a crucial strategy in the quest to preserve the remaining fragments. The Conservancy supported the recent formation of Chile’s first land trust to promote private lands conservation, and encourages the creation of legislation that could incite more private lands conservation at a policy level.

Private Initiative

The Altos de Cantillana Nature Sanctuary encompasses portions of the Altos de Cantillana and Horcón de Piedra mountain ranges. 

The Chilean government obtained funds from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to carry out, a project from 2005 to 2009 aimed precisely at creating the Altos de Cantillana Nature Sanctuary. The long-term goal was to provide a model for developing and strengthening Chile's national protected areas system and establishing other nature sanctuaries.

The “Nature Sanctuary” designation is a protection category that encourages stakeholders to preserve the natural conditions of an area; it is the only protection designation in the country’s environmental legislation that allows private owners to retain their title to the land, while simultaneously ensuring its protection. In Altos de Cantillana, the families will retain their titles to their lands, but any changes they want to make to their properties must be authorized by Chile’s National Monuments Council, the governmental agency in charge of the protected area.

Victoria Alonso, the Conservancy’s Mediterranean Chile project coordinator, explains the importance of this new protected area: “Altos de Cantillana is a natural treasure for Santiago, the most populated city in the country. Only a miracle and the strong will of landowners have saved it from disappearing. I have been lucky enough to visit the area and observe firsthand the amazing woodlands, crystal-clear freshwater springs, and rocky highlands home to condors and pumas. I am so happy Chile took advantage of the opportunity to protect this unique piece of land.”

Unique Biodiversity

The Altos de Cantillana massif and the Aculeo lagoon basin are located at approximately 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) above sea level in central Chile. The area contains five of the six types of Mediterranean forest, including vestiges of deciduous forests and the endangered Chilean palms (Jubaea chilensis). 

It is estimated that there are 163 wildlife species living there, of which 25 are endemic and 37 are threatened.

Some of the most outstanding are:

  • the Culpeo Fox (Pseudalopex culpaeus);
  • the Grey Fox (Pseudalopex griseus);
  • the Colocolo cat (Felis colocolo); and
  • the kodkod (Oncifelis guigna), the smallest wildcat in the Americas.

Several endemic reptile species and two parrot species, the Choroy (Enicognathus leptorhynchus) and the Tricahue (Cyanoliseus patagonus), are also part of the area’s rich biodiversity.

Multiple Threats

Less than one percent of this fragile ecosystem is under protection in Chile. Protecting the Cantillana highlands isn’t just a priority, it’s a challenge, particularly due to the multiple threats they face:

  • Fires caused mainly by weekend tourists and campers;
  • Land clearing land for urban development;
  • Hunting, particularly for birds, wildcats and foxes;
  • Capture of rare animals (birds and reptiles) for the illegal pet trade;
  • Logging, especially to produce charcoal;
  • Mining for gold and other minerals.
The Conservancy’s Role

The Nature Conservancy has made protecting Mediterranean Chile a top priority. Like its counterparts in California, the Mediterranean Sea region, South Africa and Australia, this long central valley supports a thriving agricultural industry producing premium olive oils, wines, fruit, and other agricultural products vital to local communities and the global economy.

After helping establish Chile’s first land trust in the Zapallar forests — also in the Mediterranean habitat — the Conservancy is now committed to providing technical assistance in support of the creation of the Altos de Cantillana Land Trust to help manage properties for conservation in this highly endangered region.

Alonso is optimistic about this initiative and points out that “the willingness of conservation-minded landowners is blazing a trail for others to follow. Chile does not yet provide landowners with the adequate tools or economic incentives to conserve their private properties, but Altos de Cantillana is finding its way through this difficult scenario to become, under the current insufficient legislation, an unprecedented private initiative.”

Marcela Torres is a marketing specialist/writer for The Nature Conservancy in Latin America.


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