(Reuters) - Conservationists in Chile are reintroducing the rhea to its native Patagonia region, after the at-risk flightless bird was brought to near-extinction by illegal hunting.
Last month, fourteen rheas were released into Patagonia's national park by the Tompkins Conservation, bounding from a fenced enclosure into a grassy plain.
"We started with a population of at least 20 birds and today, census results show close to 70," said Cristian Saucedo, director of the rewilding programme at the conservation group, referring to the scheme that started in 2014.
"The goal is to get to 100 adults in the wild. With that number, we estimate the population will be able to sustain itself over time," he told Reuters in a virtual interview.
The rhea is an essential part of the ecosystem in Patagonia, helping to distribute seeds throughout the region with its largely vegetarian diet, said Carolina Morgado, executive director of Tompkins Conservation.
"They are in a very precarious conservation category, in danger of extinction," she said. "In the Aysen region there are only two valleys where the rheas live and they are very important to the well-being of the Patagonian steppe."
Rheas are listed as near-threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
Morgado said the rhea rewilding programme was part of the organisation's contribution to protecting the planet.
"When the pandemic first started I thought that we had a tremendous opportunity, but as time has gone on, you see it's only a small group of people who think like this. The average person is returning to their usual habits," she said.
"So I don't know if we are going to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity the planet is giving us, this chance of changing habits, our perspective and reacting to it. I don't know if it will happen, I'm not very optimistic about it."
(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Karishma Singh; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)