Argentina's newest national park protects vital wetlands

Just an hour's drive from one of South America's most populous cities, a sprawling wetland of bright green marshes and dark lagoons stretches far into the horizon.

The until-now little-known area, home to a wide range of birds, fish and other wildlife, has become Argentina's newest national park in a victory for nature preservation at a time when the country is facing an economic crisis and governments worldwide are cutting back funding for parks and environmental programs.

Conservationists say creation of the Ciervo de los Pantanos (Marsh Deer) National Park out of two nature preserves will increase resources to protect the more than 5,500 hectares (20 square miles) from real estate development and other threats while creating an open-air classroom for students in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.

"The main factor here is environmental education ... because every school from (greater) Buenos Aires, where 14 million people live, will come here," said Jeronimo Valle, the park's director.

"It's important to have a direct contact with these ecosystems so that we stop seeing them as unfertile ... lands, and instead see them for what they are: lands that must be preserved."

A group of students who arrived from the outskirts of the capital shared a picnic and played a pickup game of soccer on a meadow before trekking along the park's trails.

Fifteen-year-old Martina Suarez said the park was a reminder of what needs to be saved from development.

"Our natural resources will end if we continue on this path because urbanization is taking over our flora and fauna," she said. "If it wasn't for this," she said gesturing to the lush vegetation surrounding her, "we wouldn't be here."

At about 40 miles (70 kilometers) from Buenos Aires, it's the closest national park to the Argentine capital. The entrance is just off the Pan-American Highway and a railway cuts through the park. But the low, omnipresent hum of cars and even train horns seems distant, often drowned out by the constant calling of birds.

"We just heard a southern screamer," park ranger Agustin Mezzabotta said during a recent trek after crossing a long wooden footbridge over swamps to reach a lagoon.

This "is a space where people can connect with nature, connect with their five senses, observe, smell the grass, hear the birds," he said.

Visitors might not be blown away by monumental glaciers, waterfalls or even the large animals of other Argentine parks. But the wetlands are ideal for birdwatchers and visitors can catch glimpses of animals such as wildcats and foxes.

The park is named for the marsh deer, a vulnerable species found in a few other parts of South America that is known for its webbed hooves that allow it to cross swamps smoothly where other animals would easily sink.

"I think it's really important that in these places that have threatened species, that people can actually visit them because you know people tend to think: 'You know, these things are way out in the wilderness ... that I'll never see," said Clinton Jenkins, a professor at the Institute for Ecological Research in Sao Paulo Brazil.

"So it's important to have parks that are accessible to the public, such as this one in Argentina as it will hopefully be very well visited."


Associated Press video journalist Paul Byrne contributed to this report.