Life as the World’s Smallest Camel

Three years after becoming entranced by the world of the world’s smallest camel, Arthur Middleton returns to San Guillermo, Argentina with photographer Joe Riis to learn more about these unusual animals and to share their adventures here. All photos by Joe Riis.

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(Photo by Joe Riis)

Tomorrow, we hit the road. It’s a road I love as much as I hate: 12 hours rattling your teeth loose, cinching and re-cinching the gear, for fear you’ll lose it. Wondering whether the next river crossing will be too deep, and just how much you trust the driver with that canyon rim. But when we finally top out, at 11,000 feet, in the last light of the day, we’ll be back in one of the most beautiful and desolate of places: San Guillermo.

My team and I are at our base in the small town of Rodeo, Argentina, preparing to start a wildlife project in a remote wilderness that’s ideal for watching nature at work. The landscape is wide open, and because the animals aren’t hunted or bothered, they don’t care very much about people. You can watch life and all its struggles unfold, without even getting out your binoculars.

(Photo by Joe Riis)

San Guillermo National Park sits high in the Andes of western Argentina’s San Juan province. It’s a faraway place, guarded by tall, snow-capped peaks. You don’t arrive to it easily. Though I’ve made a few preliminary visits to San Guillermo, this time is the real deal. We’ll be trying to catch some pumas and vicuñas.

San Guillermo is still a young park. It was created in 1998 to protect core areas of the 1-million hectare San Guillermo Biosphere Reserve. Its expansive dry grasslands feed huge herds of vicuñas and guanacos. The vicuña is by far the more numerous of the two. It’s the smallest member of the camel family, with a wool finer than cashmere–so fine that the Inca reserved its use only for royalty. It’s one of the most graceful creatures you’ll ever see.


(Photo by Joe Riis)

Because San Guillermo’s vicuña population is the largest remaining, it still sustains a lot of pumas. They hunt through the tallgrass meadows and rocky canyons. Under the cover of night, they even stalk the open plains. When a puma makes a kill, you usually know it the next day. You see tufts of wool floating on the wind, or a long drag mark across the plain, or a few dozen condors circling for the scraps. One of many unique things about San Guillermo is that the pumas – so hard to see in the forests of North America – walk around like they own the place. I’ve never seen a puma in my field work back in Wyoming – only fresh tracks and scats – but I saw one on the very first day I visited San Guillermo. It stood up from a nap, cast our truck a puzzled gaze, yawned, and loped away. That’s when I decided, “I’ve got to find a way back to this place.”


(Photo by Joe Riis)

It took me three years, but here I am. With support from National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration, I’ll be working with my Argentinean colleague Emiliano Donadio to investigate how puma predation affects the number and the behavior of vicuñas in San Guillermo. Pumas seem to hide and strike from the cover of the very same grasses the vicuñas eat. So we are wondering, how do vicuñas avoid becoming a puma’s meal, while still getting their own? We are also curious what their daily struggle means for the rest of the ecosystem–and in this way San Guillermo can serve as a reference landscape for conservation elsewhere in the region.

Emiliano has been working here for 7 years–he spent more than 600 days in the field here during his PhD research–and he knows the place like no one else. But he’s never had the benefit of the GPS collars we’ll be using to track pumas and vicuñas. In fact, no one has ever put a GPS collar on a vicuña before.

But we need to do more than just science here. San Guillermo’s extreme elevations and remoteness limit public access. The main road to the park washes out in summer rains almost every year. That’s why annual visitation now tops out at about 15 visitors, meaning that hardly anyone can get here to see its wonders.

And this is where Joe Riis comes in–to bring its wonders to the people. Joe is a wildlife photojournalist and contributor to National Geographic. Even though he has been to a lot of special places in the world, we managed to get him hooked on San Guillermo last year. “This is one of my favorite places to go, Joe tells me. “I like the true wildness of it.” And he adds, with a grin, “I also like the grilling, and the wine.”

So that’s what we’ll enjoy one last time tonight, as we ready our gear for tomorrow’s climb up the long road to San Guillermo.

Read All San Guillermo 2014 Posts





Meet the Author
Arthur is a wildlife ecologist based at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He studies the predator-prey interactions and seasonal migrations of large mammals in the Rocky and Andes Mountains.