Using protected areas as a long-term research platform to achieve an integrated socio-ecological understanding and conservation of endangered species: the case of southern river otter in Tierra del Fuego National Park
Traditional objectives of protected areas include biodiversity conservation, scientific research, and environmental education and outreach. However, to conserve a species, it is not only necessary to preserve its physical habitat, but also generate knowledge and promote social engagement. The southern river otter (Lontra provocax) is the largest native mustelid in Patagonia and has the most restricted distribution of any South American otter, being very sensitive to hunting, human settlements, water contamination and habitat degradation. In Argentina, this endangered species is only found in two disjunct areas. The southern population occupies mainly the forested portion of marine coasts along the Beagle Channel, including Tierra del Fuego National Park (TFNP). To evaluate the ecological and social effectiveness of TFNP in conserving this species, we used an inter-disciplinary assessment of its: 1) Distribution: searching for otter signs along the Beagle Channel (2005-2009); 2) Population: monitoring abundance and habitat use in TFNP (1994-present), and registering reproductive behavior using camera traps (2013-2014); 3) Scientific research: reviewing indexed literature of this otter species that was related to TFNP (1996-present); and 4) Media representation: evaluating the region’s main newspapers to determine the species appears and relationship to TFNP (2010-2015).
Although otter signs have been found outside of TFNP, these sightings were occasional, leaving the protected area as the only sector with continued presence of the species. The park’s otter population has remained stable from 1994; during 2014 a female with one pup was recorded, confirming the use of TFNP as a reproductive area. All published scientific research about otters in Tierra del Fuego since 1996 have been related to TFNP. All but one media article during the last five years were generated by the park. As such, this protected area constitutes a “socio-ecological refuge” for this endangered species; it has conserved the habitat for a stable, reproductive population, but also it provided a platform for scientific research and outreach that brought this species into a broader social context. However, TFNP faces challenges in raising awareness about this elusive species. There is reason to question whether outreach efforts to date have been effective, and new studies are being developed to determine the broader social representations of the species held by TFNP stakeholders: local visitors, tourists and personnel. Such information is expected to be useful to generate strategies to obtain broader public involvement and comprehensive conservation of the southern river otter.