The Wild

Swift as the Wind: The Guanacos of Patagonia

Ultimate survivors that can live in the arid high-altitude desert just as well as in the wet and snowy trans-Andes

Photos & Text by Dhritiman Mukherjee

Not quite as famous as their cousins the camel and the llama, the guanaco (lama guanicoe) is a wild animal found only in South America. Though their population has reduced significantly in recent decades, guanacos still number about half a million on the continent.

They roam and graze in herds. Mixed herds consist of females and their babies, called chulengos, and one dominant male leader. Bachelor herds are groups of up to 50 males. A male guanaco must leave the mother’s herd once he is about a year old, and join a large bachelor herd.

During my travels in Patagonia, through the Torres del Paine in Chile and the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, I encountered many of these athletic long-necked creatures. They are survivors, able to live in the Atacama Desert just as well as they manage in the rainy Torres del Paine national park. Like their camel kin, the guanaco can survive long periods in arid terrain without water.

Slender and fawn coloured, they have very long necks topped by a large head. They aren’t as gentle as they look, and as I witnessed, will not hesitate to spit, kick, bite, or chase. They are about 3.5 to 4 feet in height and can weigh up to 135 kilos. Guanaco wool, like the wool from its other cousin the vicuña, is highly prized, though this industry remains small, given how hard it is to capture and shear these animals.

In the South American wilderness guanacos can be easily spotted as they live where there is no tree cover. They are found from northwestern Peru to the islands of Tierra del Fuego in the south, all across the Chilean Andes in the west to Argentina’s Atlantic coast. In Chile’s Torres del Paine national park visitors stop to look at a herd crossing the road. In this region guanaco aren’t afraid of humans. Further south in Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula, they seemed to be slightly more wary of people.

Guanaco males display aggressive behaviour against other males to maintain hierarchies, fight for mating rights, or position as leader of a female group. Some of this is indirect, in the form of rearing or aggressive vocalization to show dominance.

Scientists studying guanaco behaviour indicate that aggressive activity peaks in the month of January, in preparation for mating season. Males will chest-ram and body slam each other to establish dominance. In this scene, after a fight, a fleeing male is being chased by a dominant male who will bite down hard on his hind legs. Guanacos go so far as to tear at each other’s testicles to decide who will get to mate with a female.

Early in the morning, a sentinel stands guarding its herd, with the sheer granite peaks and dark metamorphic rock of the Torres del Paine in the background. The leader of a pack may stand on guard on a high ledge or assign another member of the group the task. If danger is near, the sentinel’s job is to let out a high-pitched shriek that gives the rest of the herd the signal to flee.

Early in the morning, a sentinel stands guarding its herd, with the sheer granite peaks and dark metamorphic rock of the Torres del Paine in the background. The leader of a pack may stand on guard on a high ledge or assign another member of the group the task. If danger is near, the sentinel’s job is to let out a high-pitched shriek that gives the rest of the herd the signal to flee.

The guanaco’s main predator is the puma, or mountain lion. One of the reasons guanacos tend to live in groups is so that they can keep watch as a team and ward off pumas. When a puma is spotted too close, guanacos will give a warning call and flee. Pumas tend not to pursue the speedy fleeing guanaco too far. In the Torres del Paine, we spotted this guanaco downed by a puma. Pumas generally kill at night, and will sometimes sleep nearby and eat again in the morning. Not only will it feed, but other scavengers like this South American gray fox and other birds also enjoy the feast.

With their long legs and slender bodies guanacos are fast, clocking up to 56 kilometres per hour. In the vast grasslands of Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula there are no places to hide. Guanacos are adapted to running on rocky terrain, including steep hillsides.

In the Valdes Peninsula, grazing lands are all fenced off. In the early morning, I watched a guanaco herd feed on the grass on one side and then nonchalantly jump over the fence to feed on the other side. Once hunted for its warm, thick wool, the guanaco in this region are now protected by law.

Though also found at lower elevations in some parts of South America, like this beach near Punta Tombo at the southwest end of the Valdes Peninsula, the guanaco is mostly a high-altitude creature. It can survive comfortably at heights of 13,000 feet in the Andes because it is physiologically extremely well adapted to altitude with four times the number of red blood cells as a human. These curious guanacos had strayed to the beach and were interested in what the Magellanic penguins were up to on the beach.

Though also found at lower elevations in some parts of South America, like this beach near Punta Tombo at the southwest end of the Valdes Peninsula, the guanaco is mostly a high-altitude creature. It can survive comfortably at heights of 13,000 feet in the Andes because it is physiologically extremely well adapted to altitude with four times the number of red blood cells as a human. These curious guanacos had strayed to the beach and were interested in what the Magellanic penguins were up to on the beach.

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