EPIwild research associate participates in TV series on invasive species

Daniela Contreras
July 17, 2023
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Felipe Hernández was interviewed for the chapter on mink and explained how and why this species has had serious effects on the community of southern Chile and what still needs to be investigated: its relationship with zoonosis, as it is a potential transmitter of parasites and infectious agents.

This production received funding from the National Public Science Public Outreach Products Contest 2022 and consists of six chapters that explore the impact of six invasive alien species on Chile's biodiversity. These species represent a socioecological problem in both the north and south of the country. The production team is made up of professionals from the Faculty of Communication and Image of the Universidad de Chile, the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, the Biological Invasions Laboratory of the Universidad de Concepción and the UChileTV channel, where the series will be broadcast with narration by actress Blanca Lewin.

The main objective of this documentary series is to facilitate the understanding of the relationship and conflict between fauna, vegetation and the inhabitants of the Chilean territory, in order to understand the socio-ecological context and problems in which these invasive exotic species, which are not native to Chile but were introduced by human action, develop. The series seeks to raise awareness about the urgency of managing and controlling these species in order to achieve an ecosystemic balance.

During this year, the chapters dedicated to the six invasive exotic species will be filmed in various locations around the country, including Copiapó, Patagonia, Osorno, Malalcahuello, among others. The focus will be on: the mink, the beaver, feral dogs or dogs without responsible ownership, the European bumble bee or bombus terrestris, the European bumble bee or bombus terrestris, the European bristlecone pine and the European hawthorn or ulex europaeus.

The unwelcome inhabitant of the city of rivers: The mink

With a length of between 50 and 70 cm, a tail of 20 cm and a weight of about 2 kg, the mink is distinguished by its white fur on the chin and its black and brown body. Although it was originally white when it was introduced into southern Chile for commercialization, it resembles weasels, otters and badgers. This small animal has a solitary and territorial behavior, and its dispersal season is from late spring to summer. Although its odor is characteristic, it is not as foul as that of other animals.

The city of Valdivia was selected as the setting to understand the context and problems associated with this small mustelid in the territory. The mink, a carnivore native to North America, was introduced into Chile in the 1930s for commercial purposes in the fur industry. However, as its reproduction has not been controlled, it has become an invasive species in our territory, causing ecological, social and economic problems for the inhabitants of the Los Ríos Region.

"Its invasion and dispersion process has been quite rapid, starting in southern Chile in Patagonia, with a notable increase in its advance towards the north. Being a semi-aquatic mustelid, its plasticity has been facilitated by taking advantage of watercourses or rivers to move and use them as biological corridors, which is why it has reached Valdivia. It is very successful as an invasive species because its diet is extensive, especially in avifauna, which is what has been most reported. Chickens, black-necked swans, pidens, ducks, etc. have fallen into its nets, but there are also effects on native mammals," said researcher Felipe Hernández of the Universidad Austral de Chile, who also points out that this species is reproductively effective. "A female can have 6 to 10 offspring in a single litter, and
at least once a year. Imagine how its population is multiplying," he said.

In terms of economic issues, small-scale subsistence livestock farming has been the most affected, since its body flexibility allows it to move in small holes and climb trees, increasing its impact on the slaughter of poultry, specifically in free-range poultry houses. However, much remains to be explored about how it affects other wildlife species - wild birds (black-necked swans, loggerheads), fish (snook, salmon, trout), amphibians, and even pigs and newborn lambs - and its relationship with zoonosis, as it is an opportunistic species and potential transmitter of parasites and infectious agents. "The mink is very successful because it has no natural predators to control it, unlike where it comes from, where lynxes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, wolves, bears and large birds of prey are found," Felipe points out.

Sectoral articulation: Working together to control the invasive mink
To address this problem and mitigate its effects, it is necessary to articulate the work between public and private entities and local communities. Initially, the problem was raised at the political level, and in 2013 a public-private working group was created, which led to the presentation of a program with funding from GORE in 2015 to control the mink at the community level. As a result, impact mitigation in the agricultural area was socialized at the central level, which modified internal processes, the generation of complementary resolutions, the regulation of the hunting law and other actions. At the ministerial level, Eduardo Raffo of the SEREMI of Agriculture of Valdivia, says that the scenario was a little more complex. However, they obtained funds to incorporate the sectoral budget into the control, thus initiating the macrozonal program. "With actions based on the previous experience of the Los Ríos Region with the National Regional Development Fund (FNDR) programs, this methodology, already tested in the macro-zone, was adapted, expanding the control to the Araucanía and Los Lagos regions. Although the political support was very important, it is no less important to point out that the results of previous actions were already available, which served as a basis and support for the expansion of the initiative", said Eduardo.

So far, this program has achieved the extraction of more than 8,000 individuals. "The reception of the program by the community, fortunately, has been very positive, taking into account that this was an important problem for small-scale agriculture in our region. On the other hand, SAG, more than a support or promotion service, is an inspection service, and this program has changed the perception of the service in the eyes of the community, since it provides a quick and effective response to their problem. In addition, our program involves not only small farmers, but also individuals who are only interested in preserving the environment and the native wildlife present," said Carla Marchese of SAG Valdivia.

On the other hand, Jorge Tomasevic, scientific coordinator of the Río Cruces Wetlands Center (CEHUM), emphasizes the importance of addressing this issue that combines biological and social problems. "We are interested in seeing the system as a socioecosystem. In the case of this invasive species, we have the iconic CONTAIN project, which receives funding from the United Kingdom. In it, we address how to deal with these species, articulating the control work through the trapping done by SAG and understanding the related ecological elements. In addition, having the opportunity to exchange information with the affected communities has greatly enriched this project". He also points out that this work must be carried out jointly, requiring a large-scale coordinated effort.

According to Ignacio Rodríguez, director of CEHUM, the impact of mink is among the top ten in economic terms, especially in small-scale agriculture. Although eradicating it is not possible, it can be contained. "To achieve this, the involvement of the entire community and region is crucial. Social interaction plays a key role in solving this problem. If mink are not controlled in a few households, they will persist and become a source for others. Reducing densities of the species is key to reducing its impact, while strategically targeting limited resources," he said.

Affected community: A daily struggle for survival
Anita Silva, a resident of Rinconada in the commune of Máfil, near Valdivia, has suffered the consequences of the mink in her chicken coop on three occasions. Each time, the animal has killed all her chickens. Anita has purchased traps provided by the Servicio Agrícola Ganadero (SAG) and constantly asks for their help in capturing the mink. The traps are analyzed by professionals in the field. "I have managed to catch 300 mink, but they continue to reproduce rapidly. This animal takes away my livelihood and food. It is violent and I feel it is unfair, because in the end the poorest people are the ones who suffer the most," said Anita.

Carlos Saavedra, director of the "Invasores" program, emphasizes that the main objective of the documentary series is to provide relevant content to an audience that is less familiar with scientific documentation. The television format of the documentary allows us to reach a wider audience and generate a change in awareness to improve our ecosystem, maintain it and make it more habitable for future generations. "One of the values of our series is related to the territory and its people. It is important to listen to them, understand their realities and the difficulties they face, as they are the ones who suffer the problems directly. In addition, the documentary format seeks to be visual and cinematographic, embracing emotions. This helps people understand that it is not just cold information, but situations that are felt and suffered by the inhabitants. In this way, we can reach different audiences," said Saavedra.

Source and photos: Communications Unit IEB-Chile

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