The Argentine government has declared war — on the beavers who are decimating the nation’s woodlands. On Monday, Argentine officials announced that it made a deal with neighboring Chile to exterminate 100,000 beavers in the Patagonia region that spans the two countries.
The beaver, an invasive species in South America, has been wreaking havoc on the region for decades. The problem began in 1946 when the Argentine Navy released 10 Canadian beavers loose into the country’s hinterlands to enrich the ecosystem, and perhaps kickstart the country’s fur trade. Australians did something similar, releasing non-native rabbits down under for hunting, in the early 19th century.
The Argentine beaver plan, like Aussie bunnies, backfired. Over 70 years, those ten beavers got very busy on a foreign continent devoid of natural predators. Now the population is out of control, and environmentalists and conservationists are very worried.
Unlike trees in North America, many South American trees die off after beavers sink their teeth into them. “They can cut down a small tree in a few hours and a big one in days. We are talking about trees that are 100 or 150 years old and they do not grow back,” said the Erio Curto, conservation chief for the Tierra Del Fuego province of Argentina.
Beavers have destroyed swaths of land estimated to be twice the size of the country’s capital city, Buenos Aires. And with populations fanning out, time may be on the beavers’ side. “There could be populations of beavers moving around in the continent and in the islands we don’t know anything about,” biologist Giorgia Graells told Scientific American last year after he released a study on the beavers’ environmental damage. (In Australia, there was a localized Tasman bunny plague before hunters unleashed the killer rabbits across the rest of the country.)
The rate of forest destruction convinced many that a beaver massacre was the only option left. “When we saw a picture of a beaver dam in the forest it impressed us greatly: it looked like a bomb had fallen in the forest,” said Nicolas Iacouzzi, co-creator of a documentary on the subject ominously titled “Beavers: Invasion at the End of the World,” referring to the southern tip of Argentina where the beaver battle is unfolding. “The situation was so serious that people dedicated to the conservation of species and nature said ‘the only thing left is to kill them all.’”
And kill them all they will. But culling a herd of 100,000, let alone in the rugged and inaccessible Patagonian landscape, won’t be easy. Experts say it could be a long — and violent — process. The plan is to use humane traps, then club the beavers’ heads to kill them quickly, officials told Phys.org. They estimate the process could take 10 to 15 years. That leaves plenty of time for the beavers to take some trees — if not their would-be executioners — with them.
Photo credit: KARL-JOSEF HILDENBRAND/AFP/Getty Images