Thursday, January 31st 2019, 4:48 pm - The well-meant attempt at introducing the Canadian national icon had serious and long-lasting environmental consequences.
Consider, for a moment, the humble beaver.
The old fur trading empires of the past may have faded away, but the industrious, social beaver lives on as a symbol of Canada, mostly beloved except for when the flooding from an occasional dam intrudes.
That’s in Canada. In Argentina and neighbouring Chile, the attitude toward the Canadian beaver is less adoration, more extermination.
If you’re wondering what in blazes Canadian beavers are doing so far away from the Frozen North, that is a excellent question whose implications the Argentine government should probably have thought a little harder about.
Instead, it seems to have been with a mixture of pride and hopefulness that, in 1946, the government flew 20 beavers from Manitoba first to Rio de Janeiro, then to Buenos Aires, and then on by seaplane to Lake Fagnano, in the interior of the remote Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southern tip of South America. The plan was to introduce the beavers to a habitat that must have seemed similar to Canada, in the hopes of jump-starting a native fur-trading industry.
Certainly, the announcer in the 1940s propaganda vid below seems enthusiastic (it’s in Spanish, but you can fast forward to the 6:20 mark, the moment when the beavers are released into their new abode):
If you know anything about ecology and food chains, you can tell how this turned out.
The beavers LOVED their new Patagonian digs -- the wolves, coyotes and other apex predators whose job it was to keep the numbers down were completely absent in Tierra del Fuego, with no equivalents to stop the beavers’ numbers from spiraling out of control.
The result? Those 20 initial rodents have ballooned to a thriving 100,000 (that’s according to sources in Argentina and Chile, though English-language sources once estimated the throng at 200,000). At that rate, it won’t be more than a decade or two before there is one beaver for every man, woman and child in Tierra del Fuego (population about 135,000).
Last year, a study that used Google Earth and Bing Maps to count the number of beaver dams there might be on the island came up with a staggering 70,000, according to Clarín, which also says there are more than a hundred beaver dams per square kilometre in the most infested zones.
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It’s not only confined to Tierra del Fuego either. El Pais says the first beaver sighting on the mainland was in 1994, and they are gradually spreading there as well.
Why is this bad? Because the sprawling network of beaver dams has caused widespread flooding, such that native species of trees can’t recover, and are dying at a fast rate -- to say nothing of beavers’ felling the trees to build the dams in the first place.
"What used to be a riparian forest, now is a pasture with cut trees, dead and drowned," one biologist told El País.
In Chile alone, the estimated economic loss is estimated to have been around $63 million, to say nothing of the irreplaceable ecological damage in both countries.
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People in the region have tried to make the most of it. One ski resort in the region is called Cerro Castor -- something like “Beaver Mountain” -- and some local eateries have beaver meat on the menu. There have also been sporadic attempts to encourage trapping, but these have led nowhere, as El País says trappers mostly operate near roads, unable to reach the remote hinterland where the problem is the worst.
In 2008, Chile and Argentina decided enough was enough, and started laying plans to eradicate the beavers, though the first pilot projects only began in late 2016. Even then, the first phase only aims to eradicate up to 10 per cent of the beaver horde, to get a sense of how long it would take to do a complete cull.
Just goes to show, one nation’s beloved paragon can be another country’s reviled bane.
THUMBNAIL SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons