If you spend any time in the Argentine Lake District it won’t be long before you hear talk of the almost legendary huemul. This little deer, which stands 1m at the shoulder, was declared a “National Monument” in 1996 in response to an alarming decline in population. A secretive denizen of high Patagonian forests, it once played an important role in the livelihood of indigenous groups who relied on it for food and often depicted it in cave paintings. The arrival of the Europeans and their firearms had disastrous consequences for the remarkably tame species, and there are even tales about them being killed with knives. With the increasing destruction of their forest habitat, their numbers declined rapidly and today only an estimated six hundred remain in Argentina. Your best chance of glimpsing one is in winter, when harsh weather may drive them down to lower altitudes and more open areas in search of food. One of the likeliest locations to spy a huemul is near Playa El Francés on the northeastern shore of Lago Futalaufquen in the Parque Nacional Los Alerces – but even there you’ll need luck on your side. They are also sometimes spotted further south, in Los Glaciares national park or Chile’s Torres del Paine.
The huemul shows a series of adaptations to its tough environment, possessing a thick, dense coat to protect against the cold and short, strong legs that help it gain a foothold on rocky slopes. They are also remarkably good swimmers, and can cross lakes and rivers with ease.