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Wildlife in Chile: Where to see a Huemul

The South Andean Deer or huemul (pronounced way-mool) is a true icon of Chilean fauna, appearing alongside the condor on Chile’s official coat of arms. Yet it is also endangered and threatened with extinction, with around 15,000 individuals left in the wilds of Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia. This week however, there was a small ray of hope for the gentle huemul, as a new study from Cambridge University reported an increase in the huemul population of Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins’ National Park. To celebrate this small step forward for our hoofed friends, we’re taking a look at where to spot a huemul in Chile!


What is a huemul?

The huemul is a deer that is known for its unusually large pointy ears. The huemul is native to Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia, and was once found as far north as Rancagua but now exists only much further south in scattered, isolated groups. It prefers to live in rocky areas and highland forests in the Andes mountains, for which it is well adapted with short legs and a stocky build. If you see a large deer in the south of Chile it’s likely to be a huemul, since the only other deer in the region is the tiny pudu, which is immediately recognisable for its diminutive size.

Where can you see a huemul in Chile?

Torres del Paine National Park
Although Torres del Paine National Park does not top the list in terms of the largest population of huemuls within Chile, it remains one of huemul in torres del painethe places where they are most frequently sighted as it is one of the most visited National Parks in the country. Torres del Paine is popular with backcountry hikers and multi-day trekkers and has a well established network of lodges and campsites for visitors as well as acclaimed trails like the W Trek and Paine Circuit. As such, it is possible, though not exactly common, to come across one of the park’s estimated 20 individuals, especially in the more remote areas of the Paine Circuit.
Bernardo O’Higgins National Park
The Bernardo O’Higgins National park is the largest and most remote national park in Chile and is located in Chilean Patagonia along its border with Argentina. It is here that Chile’s National Forestry Service (CONAF) and their partner organisations have seen recent success in raising huemul numbers, through a conservation initiative launched in 2002. The removal of illegal cattle grazing, which reduces the huemuls’ feeding grounds and brings them into contact with new diseases, was the key to stopping the huemuls' decline. From a falling population of 38 deer in 2002, the current population is now estimated at 77, so you’ve now got more chances than ever of spotting one.
Los Huemules de Niblinto National Reserve
This nature reserve located in the BioBio region of Chile was created especially to protect the last remaining group of huemuls in the central part of the country. It is located near to Chile’s newest UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, the corridor in between Nevados de Chillán and the La Laja Lagoon. This new corridor reserve was created in order to provide a safe passage for the most northly population of huemuls to interact and interbreed with isolated groups further south and so maintain a healthy and genetically varied population in Chile. 

How to track a huemul

Even if you go to areas where there are remaining huemul populations in Chile, your chances of happening across one are still pretty slim, huemulsespecially as they spend their time actively avoiding humans. It is much more likely that you’ll see signs of huemul activity rather than the deer itself, so here’s what to look out for:
  • Droppings: Huemul droppings appear as small bullet-shaped pellets gathered together in piles or clumps. They can be confused with rabbit droppings, but these tend to be much smaller.
  • Footprints: Huemul tracks show two toes in an upside-down heart shape. Since there is often some crossover between huemul and guanaco territory, bear in mind that huemul tracks tend to have sharper edges since they walk on hooves whereas the guanaco walks on soft footpads.
  • Bark rubbing: Trees showing signs of rubbed bark may indicate that a male huemul has been rubbing the velvet from his antlers in the area.
  • Deer lays: Large areas of flattened grass can also be a sign that a huemul has been resting nearby.
We can’t guarantee you’ll see a huemul on our Patagonia Wildlife Safari in Torres del Paine National Park, but you might just get lucky! 
Check out the comments section below for reader recommendations on where to spot a huemul in Chile or to add your own top tips!