Imported Beavers Gnaw Away At Argentina's Forests In 1946, Argentina brought in 50 Canadian beavers to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in hopes of starting a fur trade. That didn't work, but the beavers, now 200,000 strong, are causing ecological problems. Efforts to stem the onslaught — like persuading locals to serve beaver dishes — haven't quite caught on.

Imported Beavers Gnaw Away At Argentina's Forests

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At the frosty southernmost tip of South America, a devastating problem is afoot: beavers. A small number of Canadian beavers were introduced there back in 1946, and they've multiplied into an army of 200,000 across this remote archipelago.

Those beavers have been busy gnawing their way through pristine forests. NPR's Juan Forero has the story from the island of Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina.

JUAN FORERO: Pablo Kunzle, a park ranger, breaks through ice to fish out a steel trap he's laid for the semi-aquatic beavers.

He's in the middle of Tierra del Fuego National Park, standing on a dam packed tight with branches and mud, a dam built by industrious beavers on a fast-moving stream appropriately called Beaver Creek.

(Soundbite of running water)

FORERO: It's the onset of winter here in the southern hemisphere. Snow covers the ground, and strong winds blow off craggy peaks.

Mr. PABLO KUNZLE (Park Ranger): (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: I put the trap here, Kunzle says atop the dam. I think I might have gotten something. As a park ranger, Kunzle catalogues the felled trees and the flooded forests. And then there's his role as trapper, to control the population of the web-footed mammals in one section of the park.

Mr. KUNZLE: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: Almost, Kunzle says, as he examines an empty trap, explaining that this time, the beaver touched the steel jaws, set them off and got away.

The traps usually slam down on the animal's head, killing it in seconds. This is not what Argentine administrators had in mind when they imported 50 beavers from Canada. Their goal of spurring a fur trade never took off. Instead, the beavers did, helped by the fact that there are no natural predators here: no wolves, no bears.

Laura Malmierca, a parks service biologist, says the first beavers were let loose in Lake Fanano in the middle of Tierra del Fuego.

Ms. LAURA MALMIERCA (Parks Service Biologist): (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: From there, she says, they spread across a string of islands along the Beagle Channel. Now, a colony has been established on the Brunswick Peninsula in Chile, on continental South America. That's alarmed officials in both countries.

At the Austral Center for Scientific Investigations, Guillermo Deferrari, a biologist, pulls out the beaver's main weapon from a bag - its durable teeth.

Mr. GUILLERMO DEFERRARI (Biologist): (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: He says the teeth keep growing throughout a beaver's life, teeth so strong they chip through big trees. To stem the beaver population, authorities have paid rewards to trappers, which didn't have much of an effect because few people here know how to trap.

In the tourist town of Ushuaia, they even tried to get restaurants to serve beaver dishes to generate a trade in beaver meat.

Mr. EZEQUIEL RODRIGUEZ (Owner, Gustino): It's dark color. It's a little bit tough. It takes a long time to cook. It's not amazing, but it's fine.

FORERO: Ezequiel Rodriguez, owner of Gustino, a restaurant that tried serving beaver dishes, said that idea also didn't fly.

The latest proposal is a complete eradication: to kill every single beaver, as both Chile and Argentina have agreed. Logistically, though, it'll be hard in rugged, wet terrain. And then there are the tourists to consider.

They come to this region to hike, to take in the penguins, the roaring sea lions.

(Soundbite of sea lions)

FORERO: And they come for the beavers. They are, after all, very cute: round, furry, with buck teeth and long whiskers. And you can't fault their work ethic.

Trudging through newly fallen snow, Kunzle, the park ranger, says tourists don't know the whole story.

Mr. KUNZLE: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: There are few who are well-informed about the beavers, Kunzle says, and the damages they cause.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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