Valdes Península in Patagonia is home to significant biodiversity, including highly fragile terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The dynamic coastal zone features rocky cliffs, shallow bays, coastal lagoons, and small islands. It is both a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.
Valdes Peninsula (Península Valdés) is located in northern Patagonia, in the Chubut Province of southern Argentina. The peninsula of over 360,000 ha (890,000 acres) reaches more than 100 km (62 mi) eastwards into the South Atlantic Ocean.
World Heritage Site
Península Valdés is an important nature reserve listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. It is considered to be a site of global significance for the conservation of marine mammals.
Península Valdés is home to an important breeding population of the endangered southern right whale and important breeding populations of southern elephant seals and southern sea lions. The orcas in this area have developed a unique hunting strategy to adapt to local coastal conditions.
Most of the peninsula is barren land with some salt lakes. The largest of these lakes is at an elevation of about 40 m (131 ft) below sea level.
The peninsula's roughly 400 km (250 mi) of shoreline includes a series of gulfs: the extensive Golfo San Matias to the north and Golfo Nuevo to the south, both covering several thousand square kilometers.
The dynamic coastal zone of the Valdes Península features rocky cliffs of up to 100 m (328 ft) in height, shallow bays, shifting coastal lagoons with extensive mudflats, sandy and pebble beaches, active dunes, and small islands.
Connected to the mainland only through a narrow strip of land, the mushroom-shaped peninsula, and its shore are almost insular. There are important breeding colonies of shorebirds and tens of thousands of nesting Magellanic Penguins.
The only town on the peninsula is the small settlement of Puerto Pirámides. There are also several estancias, where sheep are raised.
Valdes Peninsula has a semi-arid climate. Mean annual precipitation is low, averaging 240 mm (9.4 in) although this is highly variable from year to year. The mean annual temperature is 10.6 °C (51.1 °F).
The calm gulfs of Valdes Peninsula, sheltered from the rough South Atlantic, are key breeding, calving, and nursing areas of the Southern Right Whale and many other marine mammals, such as the Southern Elephant Seal, Southern Sea Lion, and Orca.
The land ecosystem is dominated by the Patagonian Desert Steppe, representing more than half of the plant communities distinguished in Argentine Patagonia despite its relatively modest size.
The wetlands, some of them also recognized as Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, are associated with the tidal areas of the Peninsula and provide significant nesting and resting sites for numerous migratory shorebirds.
Terrestrial wildlife includes Guanacos, one of South America's native camelid species, and the Patagonian Mara, a rodent endemic to Argentina. There are 181 recorded bird species, including the Lesser Rhea, the White-headed Steamer Duck, endemic to Argentina, and the migratory Snowy Sheathbill.
Map of Chubut Province in Argentina, Valdes Peninsula at upper right
Valdes Biosphere Reserve
The Valdes Biosphere Reserve encompasses the Patagonian Steppe, Hill Plains and Plateaus, and Argentine Sea ecoregions. It is home to significant biodiversity including highly fragile terrestrial and marine ecosystems, the conservation of which is crucial to addressing the vulnerabilities of key species.
The Biosphere Reserve incorporates the Península Valdés Natural Protected Area, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999; San Jose and Playa Fracaso, which were nominated Ramsar sites in 2012; the El Doradillo municipal protected area, and the natural protected areas of Punta Loma and Punta León.
Both the Patagonian steppe ecoregion and the Argentine Sea have been recognized as important sites and are inscribed on WWF’s Global 200 list.
The Patagonian steppe includes temperate grasslands, which are characterized by high fragility and develop in cold and dry climates under constant winds. These grasslands have the potential to absorb and store carbon, contributing to the fight against climate change.
The Valdes Biosphere Reserve is also of botanical interest, as it hosts numerous endemic species including families of Brassicaceae, Cactaceae, Fabaceae, Oleaceae, and Verbenaceae among others. One example of an emblematic mammal endemic species is the Dolichotis patagonum (the Patagonian hare).
The Argentine Sea ecoregion is characterized by cold-temperate waters and relatively low biodiversity compared to tropical environments and presents species that have high biomass. The ecoregion is one of the most productive in the world. The Patagonian region, in particular, produces an abundant amount of phytoplankton, about three times higher than the world average.
The coastal marine environment of this ecoregion is affected by various anthropogenic threats, such as degradation, overexploitation of resources, the introduction of new species, physical changes to the coastal zone, pollution, and mass tourism. However, the marine coastal areas remain suitable habitats for the feeding and reproduction of many species of birds and marine mammals.
Particular bodies of water, such as the Golfo Nuevo and San José, function as crucial sites for the reproduction of species such as Eubalaena australis (the southern right whale).
According to the 2010 National Census, 214,196 inhabitants live in the Viedma and Rawson departments. The local population is distributed across rural and urban communities found mainly in the transitional zone.
There are numerous important cultural features in this Biosphere Reserve. For example, significant paleontological and archaeological remains are situated in the province of Chubut, especially in the coastal area of the north Patagonian gulfs, which are particularly rich in ruins and archaeological sites.
In Chubut, there are also three recognized indigenous groups: the Mapuche, Tehuelche, and Ona. Their numbers are estimated at 24,000 people, representing about 5% of the province's population.
Native indigenous languages are still spoken in this area with about 22% of the Mapuche population in Chubut knowing their native language. However, Spanish is the most commonly spoken language.
The maintenance of indigenous cultural practices and languages is a challenge for people living in this area, as native indigenous languages do not generally form part of children's school education.
The most important economic activities in the region are livestock rearing, tourism, fisheries, industry (aluminum, porphyry), and, more recently, wind power generation.
The main agricultural activity in the Biosphere Reserve is sheep farming, with the second and third (in quantitative terms) being cattle and goat farming. These are developed through extensive and continuous grazing. These activities cover about 300,000 ha (740,000 acres) of the buffer zone, constituting 50% of the Biosphere Reserve area.