Saturday, July 25, 2009

Who will shed a tear for the beaver?

A few years ago I wrote a weekly column for The London Free Press. In the course of writing the column I came across the story of how the Canadian beaver, or to be accurate the American Beaver (Castor canadenis), was introduced to the tip of South America, the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.

Walking along the Thames River below the presently kaput Springbank Dam I noticed downed trees, their stumps bearing the distinctive teeth marks of the Canada's largest rodent and smallest lumberjack — the beaver.

If you like wetlands, beavers are environmental engineers. If you like the world just the way it is and want to keep it that way, beavers are environmental vandals.

Argentina and Chile share the beaver infested archipelago at the tip of South American. The beaver were introduced in the 1940s by fur traders eager to start a beaver pelt industry. Beaver fell out of fashion, beaver fur coats are no longer in, and the beavers were left to tinker away at their two most popular pastimes — dam building and family building, not necessarily in that order.

Chile and Argentina don't always agree but when it comes to the beavers they both see them as vandals. Forests, decades old and ripe for lumbering, are being wiped out, drowned by beaver ponds and not downed by South American lumberjacks for profit.

Hated and despised our beavers are caught in the swirling currents of angry lies being spread to support their eradication from their adopted homeland. Our beloved beaver is being compared to the plague of rabbits destroying Australia or the crayfish infestation laying waste to the Nile River in Egypt. It just can't be true, can it?

Take the Egyptian crayfish, known as the cockroach of the Nile, they have their defenders. The abundant crustaceans eat the Nile River snail known to carry bilharzia, a water-born disease affecting millions of Egyptians. Deaths from bilharzia have decreased in recent years along the river where the crayfish are most common .

If you have ever been to New Orleans, you know that the little crustaceans are good to eat — a Cajun delicacy. Boiling them in water spiked with Louisiana hot sauce, gives their white, sweet meat a gentle spicy heat. Six of the little tails, they're similar to lobster tails but smaller, leaves the mouth warm and longing for a cool, heat-quenching beer. We must teach the Egyptians to eat crayfish, and to drink beer. In the end, they'll thank us for both.

And those rabbits in Australia, well there are very few people who have a good word for those bunnies, millions and millions of bunnies to be accurate. Even the fence builders, who benefited so greatly in the past from the building and maintaining of thousands of miles of rabbit-proof fencing criss-crossing Australia, had nary a good word for the varmints.

It's ironic that the pack animal credited with making the building and maintaining of the thousand mile fences possible was the camel — another species foreign to Australia, and like the rabbit introduced in error.

So, what of our beavers, are the South Americans enjoying hidden benefits? Or, are they just plain bad news, like the rabbits in Australia — or the rabbits in our tulip garden, according to my wife.

She assures me the little rabbits that frequent our backyard are the reason her tulip beds are so sparse. Singing quietly to themselves, "When you eat the tulips do you eat the red ones first?" they wipe out her spring-welcoming flowers — red ones first. Honest!

I hate to admit it but our beavers are building an environmental disaster in South America. The best I can say is that contrary to the belief the beavers having no natural predators at the tip of South America, some are claiming the crocodiles (should we say caiman) of the region are benefiting from our national rodent and have the beaver on their menu.

The beaver, in cutting down trees and large shrubs, in damming the region's wild streams, causes large ponds to form, providing habitat for fish and crocodiles. The Argentinian national park in Tierra del Fuego may have more beaver than in the past, of course in the past it had none, but it also may have a few more crocodiles with the beaver-induced expanding crocodile habitat.

If the beaver is successfully eradicated from the tip of South America, and that is the plan, at least the crocodiles will shed a tear.


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