Teaching birds to fly with wilderness conservationist Kris Tompkins
Kris Tompkins takes us to the edge of the world in a South American rewilding story that has it all: jaguar cubs, Mick Jagger, phone tapping and teaching birds to fly – with puppets
Kris Tompkins loves being high – trekking across white Andean peaks, flying over glaciers, and hanging out on the summits of the Southern Cone.
It’s from up above that we can really understand Planet Earth, by noticing the spots where nature is in retreat, but also how forests, land and seascapes are replenishing thanks to extraordinary conservation work.
The 71-year-old activist has always wanted a wild life. Well, mission accomplished. The president of Tompkins Conservation is considered the greatest private wilderness conservationist of our time, having worked with no less than ten presidents in creating the world’s biggest conservation scheme, in Argentina and Chile. She has spent three decades working to rewild a healthy planet with big, wild, and connected landscapes where human communities, animals and plants can thrive.
Together with her late husband Doug, the couple has saved countless primeval forests, created and expanded 15 national parks, protecting 14.8 million acres of land and 30 million acres of sea – and helped missing species like giant otters, macaws and jaguars return to the heart of Argentina’s wetlands.
A driving force to curb the worldwide climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis, today Tompkins Conservation collaborates with public and private partners on a multitude of epic rewilding projects through a nonprofit network that includes Fundacion Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile, and coastal conservation project Patagonia Azul.
In Argentina’s Corrientes province, its apex predator – the jaguar – has been driven to local extinction by poachers, habitat loss, and a lack of food sources and suitable mates. Now eight have been released into the Iberá wetlands of Argentina – a sort of ‘Jurassic Park for large cats’ – roaming free for the first time for over 70 years. The start of this year, 1 January 2022, marked a milestone as the first adult male jaguar joined the females and cubs in the protected 1.8-million-acre grasslands.
If that’s not wild enough – before all that, Kris was CEO of Patagonia. In the ’90s, she helped the outdoor clothing company ‘for the silent sports’ become a leader on environmental causes, and a renowned ‘anti-corporation’.
Kris met rock climbing legend Yvon Chouinard (the founder of Patagonia) as a teen. But it was meeting Doug Tompkins (founder of The North Face and Espirit) – who would be the love of her life – that changed everything. Kris didn’t think twice about moving to a remote area in south Chile with the adventurer, happily swapping a business role leading an iconic brand for mitigating the climate and extinction crises. The couple vowed to buy up large expanses of land in the Patagonia region, protect them and donate them back.
By 2018, Kris had signed decrees with former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to add more than 10 million acres of new national parklands to Chile, in the largest donation of land from a private entity to a country in history.
Every day, our planet is losing some 200 species, each with their own unique character and brilliance. Some have never been studied or even named. With them also goes key interactions in nature; with other species, the soil, and the very air we breathe.
Like an invisible web, these exchanges constitute healthy ecosystems that uphold climate stability and the delicate balance of life on Earth. When these natural processes are broken, it is time to step in to help nature do its job – to reverse the destruction and collateral damage caused by humans.
Rewilding is about reseeding algae so that the coastal biodiversity can flourish, establishing a biological corridor for Andean deer on the brink of extinction, breeding jaguars so they may roam wild where they had been exterminated, actions which renew our own connection with the wild – and rural communities – in the process.
I reached out to Kris for a chat about the challenges of reversing extinction, unprepared for the warmth that would emanate as we leaned in to chat about teaching birds how to fly, and her love of music. In fact, this article was written whilst listening to some piano music she recommends.
Spoiler Alert: this chat features furry and feathered fauna, peaks at the start, ends in peace and contains a lot of love
Lisa Goldapple: Hi Kris. So, where are you right now? I can see trees.
Kris Tompkins: I’m in California at the family ranch in a small agricultural town called Santa Paula. It’s got avocado trees, mammoth sycamore trees and oak trees. After living outside of the United States for 28 years, it’s really nice to have space and beauty and family around. Doug and I have been in Chile and Argentina since 1993. Just before I left a year and a half ago, I was in Chile trying to climb Cerro Kristine, a peak that’s named after me by Yvon and Doug. There’s a film being made about our lives. News started to appear over and over again about this virus. I got a note from the US embassy that the last airline out of Chile was stopping. I just packed a little bag and then I’ve been stuck here. But this is an extraordinary place to have landed. I have been one of the beneficiaries of the Covid era.
Not many people can say they have their own peak. Did you make it to the top?
No. It was very icy conditions, which was fine with me! I always said it was the doing, not the arriving. Soon we’ll be going back to Chile and down along the Beagle Channel in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southern tip of South America. Some areas are really rough but I like getting out in really harsh conditions.
What’s the toughest trip you’ve done?
One of the most difficult was with Doug and Yvon going from the Beagle Channel over an untrammelled mountain range on horses. In fall it’s really rough weather down in those high latitudes. But, you know, I’m 71-years-old so there have been all sorts of things. Anybody who knows us would say, “Oh, by far the worst, or the toughest thing you did was the flying!” Of everything I miss, I miss just going to work in a plane every day, flying over giant mountain peaks or thousands of miles of Patagonia’s stepped land. Down in those high latitudes, the flying is very tricky thanks to high winds and changeable weather. I haven’t flown in a small plane in a year and a half so I miss that a lot.
That’s an epic work commute! When looking down on Earth like a bird, what’s the wildest thing you’ve witnessed?
Sometimes it’s so wild, so we’d mostly be looking very hard for a place to land, but that’s another story! You know, flying in southern Chile, it’s all mountains and then a rugged, pretty uninhabited coastline. Flying over some of the ice caps, it feels like it’s going to go on forever. When you fly over a particular chain of mountains and then you get into the grasslands and then the Northern ice cap in southern Chile comes up and you’re flying over this sensuous, really extraordinary glacial system, and then that falls away out from under you and you’re back into grasslands or thick, deep forests. And then it falls away again… it’s a kind of meditation. To see the world from up above so consistently is a gift because you begin to understand what geography is. You begin to understand, where does the water come from, where does it fold and dive down and cut across. And then a little village will show up underneath you. It’s a great unfolding of wild territory.
Can you see the effects of climate change on that territory?
The glacial systems in the South are not melting as fast as the northern hemisphere up in the Arctic. But they’re melting faster than what we would have seen almost 30 years ago. The whole bloody planet is being affected very quickly.
So, the Season 01 theme of TOPIA is THE BIG BANG. Would you consider your ‘Big Bang catalyst’ – the moment that turned you from a ‘ranching hooligan’ to saving species – meeting Yvon Chouinard?
Definitely. Yvon and Malinda Chouinard were key in the mid-70s. I attribute my early understanding to them. I had no idea anything was wrong and became an activist through them. It was being outdoors with them day-in-day-out that meant I began to see that something was taking place that wasn’t good. And then in the 80s, we at Patagonia began to give money away based on profits. I was running the company then but it wasn’t me just making those decisions. Then Doug started the North Face, sold that, and then Espirit, while having his own series of epiphanies. When he sold his portion of Espirit in ‘89, he was super clear about what he wanted to do. When Doug and I fell in love with each other, he had already decided to move down to Chile at least for a portion of each year; he just wasn’t yet clear about how long he would stay down there. But then when we fell in love and moved down there together then that was it. I was completely clear…. Just second, I’m gonna let a dog in! No more fighting you guys!
Three Labradors! What are their names?
Phineas. Beto and Lola. Beto is short for Alberto. It’s not as dramatic an answer as you want, probably! Every day I’m outside, walking with them. I don’t care if I lose my mind, I don’t care what else happens, I just need to be able to hike and walk. That’s it.
Don’t worry about drama, there are some pretty epic things going on, like bringing animals back from extinction. Can you take us on a sort of fast tour of some of those big moves?
You know, when we got started, we were on the conservation side, working in agriculture. We were really focused on the ability to buy large tracts of land and then donate them back as national parks. It was only about ten years into that when we began to realise that some species had completely gone missing. As someone said, “Landscape without wildlife is just scenery.” This was in 1998, 99, maybe 2000. That changed everything in an extraordinary way for us. By then we were up in Iberá and there were a lot of species missing. Doug focused on the jaguar as he felt that had to come back for a lot of reasons. Nobody had really done this before, to methodically go back from the bottom of the keystone species triangle up to the top. So we got started with giant anteaters. It’s a long story, but it’s the best story. It’s so extraordinary to have jaguars there today, living freely. Wherever we work now, we always ask: ‘Who is missing?’ Are they top predators? Are they keystone species? And if they are, we commit to bringing them back.
Who is missing?
So far you have brought back the Giant anteater, Pampas deer and jaguar. Where are you on your Ark, what’s next on your list?
Ooof, there are so many species to work on. Bird species sound like they would be so much easier, but the red-shouldered macaws have been the toughest. They’ve been gone for 150 years. Now they’re back flying freely. There’s no limit really. I’m way past thinking that these things are too hard or too complex. We have been through the wringer in the last 30 years and yet we’ve been able to do these things, so I’m not really afraid of much. So what if you fail? You have to go for complete ecosystems. And that’s what it takes. And then if it doesn’t work, you try something else. And so far we’ve made plenty of mistakes but no failures.
What have been the hardest challenges that you’ve had to overcome?
— Editor’s note
Since chatting to Kris, TOPIA is distraught to hear that wildfires in February have caused massive devastation to 60% of the Iberá wetlands. This is a terrible blow for biodiversity, Argentina and the world. More positively, July saw a couple of wild jaguar cubs born. Their names Arandu (a wise being) and Jasy (moon) are in the Guaraní language.
The jaguars. When we first got started, of course, everybody and their uncle was against us in Chile. It was really rough. But technically, I would say the red-shouldered macaws, jaguars and maybe giant otters. They’re all complex, but some of them are unbelievably difficult. When you take a red shouldered macaw, missing for 150 years, where do you even find individuals to start back with? You have to go to zoos, which are all over the world, and very slowly acquire individuals who might be candidates. As they have come out of a zoo system, they have no muscles, no idea how to fly, no idea what to eat. They have no idea what a predator is. So you have to teach them to fly so they can get through trees and how to land on a branch. This is really elementary stuff. How do they learn to go look for food? When you’re fed all in your life, you have no engine built in to figure out how to feed yourself.
How do they learn what’s a threat?
You have to make puppets in the form of wild cats and attack them with it. So they begin to understand that these forms are scary and to fly away if you see one. Imagine starting at absolute zero, you didn’t know how to fly. The macaws didn’t have any musculars to even fly across this sunroom. I mean, how do you teach a bird to fly and incentivise them to fly? The team members who come up with this stuff are brilliant.
How do you work with the local communities and how much sort of autonomy is there in the decision making processes?
With the reintroduction of species, you have to have a lot of permissions from authority. from the local, regional, provincial, national, international. Especially with the jaguars, as you can imagine. All that takes a long time. When you’re the first one to do it, there’s no trials for that process. It took years, seven years.
LiThe private-public partnership is interesting. It’s a big leap of faith buying all of that land, regenerating it, putting it back together and then giving it to a state entity. What lessons have you learned when it comes to how to handle the political and ideological push back to the land accumulation needed to protect large areas?
Well, of course, in the beginning, there was a lot of pushback. Our phones were tapped. We were being watched by military planes. It was really bad, the first four years in Chile. But we’ve worked with ten presidents since then. Some far right, some far left especially in Argentina. Oh, my God, because we’re not political in that sense, we’ll work with anybody. And that has really been successful in the full political spectrum, and we’ve created national parks with each one of them. With the contention over Indigenous peoples and protected areas, we side a lot with that. Every acre we ever bought was donated back to the people of either Chile or Argentina. And they are open, like the national parks in the US. Everyone is welcome, which is the whole point.
So the models that people are using for large tracts of conservation land are evolving?
At the end of the day, creating national parks was the toughest way to protect those lands long-term. But every country and province is different. Generally Chileans and Argentines, they’re the most dubious ones in the beginning. You know, we have tens of thousands of people using these parks every year. The Tompkins name will vanish eventually, as it should, because our name is not the point. The point is, how do you preserve these jewels of a country for the citizenry of that country and people around the world? That’s the only thing we care about.
And so that is what you want the lasting legacy to be…
That’s it. Within 100 years, 200 years, those jewels are still intact, and being learned from and enjoyed by as many people as possible. I’m also trying to change the concept of ‘peace’. I met with Pope Francis three years ago in his office in his library in the Vatican, because he’s working on social issues. I told him we have to change the concept of peace from just people-to-people to be between humans and the non-human world. You cannot have healthy human systems in the absence of a healthy ecosystem. I always go for beauty, and beauty can be found in communities that are whole, they’re dignified. You can’t have dignity and scarcity. The Nobel Prize for Peace should be given to Jane Goodall, David Attenborough or E.O. Wilson, or people who really understand the connection between human health and dignity – and there should be exactly the same status for the non-human world.
I wish people would realise that our human lives are absolutely seamless to the natural world. If you treat your siblings, your parents or your best friend well, you have to turn that energy equally toward your other neighbours that you don’t think about – like birds – not just who’s living next door to you but who are your neighbours. Everyone should be born with empathy that’s rock hard and love will dissolve over greed and stress and everything else that we’re hit with. So I’m going to change the name, the very idea, of peace and what it really means!
Wow, I was going to ask what’s next. Changing the word peace – that’s a good one!
I’m pretty pessimistic about this century but I’m very optimistic about the next century. So I’ll probably do this stuff until I drop dead. I have a lot of other things I’m interested in. I take pictures, I love music (right now I’m into this pianist from the UK, his name is Alexis FFrench), but nature is my grand cathedral. And I’m a worker by trade. I love chores, getting up every morning and seeing what’s on my list. I’ve been like that since I was tiny and I’ll stay on that track until I take my last breath. I love wildness and have always wanted a wild life in one form or another.
I’m trying to change the concept of peace.
Well, you’ve certainly done that, possibly inspired by being an activist in the 60s…
It’s funny, we went to see the Rolling Stones for their last concert a couple weekends ago and I just thought, you know, I’m 71 years old. And yet, here I am a couple metres away from Mick Jagger – and you realise that age isn’t the story. It’s your state of mind that’s the story. We just get better. So stop looking at your age as some sort of guillotine toward death and just go for it. As you get older, you’re smarter, you have less to lose, so you go for things. That’s how I feel. I feel free. You know, my husband died exactly six years ago, so now I really have nothing to lose. I have nothing to fear. I just feel the worst has happened to me. So that’s kind of freeing in a way.
It’s heartwarming when you talk about your love story. If everybody was able to have that love in their life, they’d be so fortunate.
My love story is still the gift that keeps on giving. We always say love is the question and love is always the answer. I would like to be remembered for my marriage, my family and for being wildly loyal, relentless and super dedicated to love.
That’s lovely. It’s been such a pleasure chatting to you. Thank you. Peace out!
Inspired? Enter the swamps and lagoons of Iberá National Park
Witness this incredible rewilding work in action
What’s so good about this?
National parks are the most durable way to protect wildlife habitat and help people reconnect with nature, as they provide indispensable ecological and social values, and are globally proven economic drivers for local communities. Parks highlight the best a country has to show the world – scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, recreation opportunities and noteworthy cultural sites. A donation to Land Conservation Trust and Patagonia Azul helps create and defend terrestrial and marine protected areas, and supports economic prosperity through conservation.
Enter the Iberá wetlands: read this heart-warming rewilding story of its swamps and lagoons, anteaters and jaguars, and surf-and turf and sign up to @worldoftopia for more surreal rewilding stories.
Meet the writer
Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”