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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Where anteaters and anacondas roam, and ranchers are now rangers

A savanna hawk in the newly established Manacacias National Park, in Meta, Colombia, Nov. 23, 2023. Colombia created its latest, and perhaps last, national park by befriending the traditional ranching culture that surrounds the land. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)

By Jennie Erin Smith

The llanos region spans more than 200,000 square miles through Colombia and Venezuela. Hot winds blow over its grassy hills, and scattered forests of Mauritius palms shelter hidden streams and lagoons. For centuries, this landscape, shaped by ancient rivers, has been shared by ranchers and cattle, which learned to coexist with jaguars, panthers, anacondas, electric eels and crocodiles.

In December, Colombia declared a new national park in a corner of the llanos that borders the Manacacías River. The Manacacías joins the larger Meta River; then the Orinoco River, which forms part of the border with Venezuela; and there feeds into a tributary of the Amazon. At 263 square miles, the new Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de Manacacías is not Colombia’s biggest. But from a conservation perspective, it is strategic, protecting a crucial link between this vast tropical savanna and the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest.

The Manacacías park is six hours from the nearest town, San Martín. To reach the park, one must navigate unmarked roads across an undulating sea of green prairie grass, seldom seeing another vehicle.

On a ride into the nascent park in late November, just days before it was legally declared, Thomas Walschburger, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy in Colombia, explained why it was needed so urgently.

Cattle rearing, the traditional livelihood of the region and one that was easier on its rivers and soils, was giving way to a new agricultural frontier. Fields of African oil palms, and white-trunked eucalyptus trees, were encroaching ever closer to the park’s boundaries.

The sandy, acidic, nutrient-poor soils of the llanos can support these commercial crops only when doused with fertilizers and calcium carbonate. But intensive agriculture compromises the water, and the ability to sustain life, in a key transition zone between the llanos and the Amazon. The hope is that by protecting this small puzzle piece of savanna, a whole lot more can be saved.

Farewell to a family legacy

Hato Palmeras, the Rey family ranch, sits close to the Manacacías River, in the southern part of the park, surrounded by a panoramic view of prairie. Founded in the early 1950s, the ranch and its 25,000 acres of natural grasslands, palm forests and wetlands have never been touched by a tractor.

On a November afternoon, Ernesto Rey, 68, prepared to drive hundreds of his cows out of the park’s limits, never to return. The ranch would soon be turned over to the Colombian government, and the farmhouse converted to a ranger station.

Colombia put up about $20 million for the park, using funds from a fossil fuel tax and environmental impact compensation payments from industry.

William Zorro, the new park’s director, had also come to see the Rey cows leave. The lawyers, park people and conservationists were not there to monitor the ranchers, Zorro insisted, but to accompany them. The atmosphere was convivial, as everyone knew one another well.

Zorro, 51, had spent more than 20 years directing different national parks in Colombia, some of them in conflict zones. As a result, his diplomatic skills were well honed. Not everyone living within the boundaries of the park was as cooperative as the Rey family; some ranchers would not vacate until they absolutely had to. Zorro tried to be as flexible as he could with them. He would give them time before he and his team began dismantling the corrals that allowed people to rear cattle here.

Another challenge Zorro faced was that people came to these lands from the surrounding community to hunt and fish, activities soon to be prohibited. “Llaneros love to hunt,” he said. “It’s something we have to work on.”

Oscar Rey, 44, worked on the family ranch for much of his life. He was there a decade ago, when teams of biologists and geologists from Colombia’s Universidad Nacional came to conduct the meticulous surveys that would form the scientific evidence for the Manacacías park. In 2022, he greeted the country’s then-environment minister when he arrived by helicopter to see it for himself. By then, the Reys had committed to selling Hato Palmeras to the government. And Oscar Rey, rather than inherit his share of it, had become a park ranger.

In many ways, he said of the llanos, “it’s like old times here.” His family ranch has always been owned and run by men; his grandfather left nothing to his daughters. But a younger generation no longer wanted to work on huge, isolated cattle ranches, he said. They wanted to study, find jobs with oil companies or agricultural firms, or move. They sought relationships that were more like partnerships, without the strict gender roles typical of the ranches. With fair offers for their properties, and few interested heirs, most landowning families were willing to sell.

The Manacacías park, Rey said, would accelerate the cultural changes already underway.

‘We’re like pioneers here’

Ernesto Rey and his cowboys awoke in their hammocks before dawn, to the percussive harps of llanera music on their phones and Jupiter visible in the sky. After a breakfast of beef bones in broth, they grabbed their soft-brimmed topochero hats and took off on their horses in a chorus of high-pitched hollers and whips cracking. A pink sunrise turned to yellow as Rey rode behind the herd in shirt sleeves, chasing wayward cows.

Within two hours, they and 300 cows would cross a river and leave the park’s limits, but their journey to the rented farm was just starting. For three nights, they would rely on the hospitality of the owners of other far-flung ranches.

The park workers and conservationists left Hato Palmeras soon afterward, headed for a northeastern sector where the new rangers were stationed.

That morning, along the improvised roads that crisscrossed the plains, wild animals were out in force. Bushy-tailed giant anteaters galloped in the dewy grass. A tamandua, or collared anteater, with prizefighter arms and curved claws that break open termite mounds, tried to ignore a car full of onlookers.

The rangers occupied an emptied-out ranch with limited electricity, no internet and no refrigerator; their fresh food was stored in foam coolers. The way it worked, a group of three rangers stayed in the house for two weeks at a time, and then returned to their base in San Martín, replaced by different colleagues. Several times a week, they made the rounds of the park together on motorcycles that their boss, Zorro, borrowed for them.

They were mostly young, poorly paid and all alone. As not even dogs can be kept in Colombia’s national parks, their sole pet was a chicken left behind by its former owners. “We’re like pioneers here,” said Alexandra Rubio, 21, who, with her colleagues, had been working in these bare-bones conditions for months. They would have to put up with the conditions a while longer, Zorro said. Once the park was officially declared and had a definite budget, things would start to improve.

Already, though, the rangers had made a difference. They had established the government’s presence in a formerly anything-goes region. On their motorcycle patrols through Manacacías, the rangers had logged some important wildlife sightings.

Oscar Rey joined his colleagues as they stopped at a bend of the Manacacías River. The rangers frequently checked in on this sandy shoreline, as people routinely placed fishing nets across it.

Everywhere around him were tracks made by tapirs, peccaries, capybaras and lizards. It was almost the time of year when freshwater turtles dug nests in the riverbanks, he said. Rey’s grandparents ate their eggs, of course, but future generations would not.

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