Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bears at Nahuel Huapi


Argentine millionaire and dandy, scion of the Anchorena dynasty, Aaron de Anchorena (1877-1965) is a very charming character.

I stumbled across him while reading a very interesting book [1] on the toponomy of Nahuel Huapi National Park (toponomy is the explanation of the origin of place names; did you ever wonder why a river or a hill was named in a certain way?, toponomy tells you the story behind the name).

Getting back to Anchorena, he was an aviator (in the early days of aviation) and an enthusiastic big game hunter. But above all, he was very rich.

He organized an expedition to Patagonia in 1901/02 to Chubut, Rio Negro and Neuquén, during which he hunted sea wolves, guanaco, wild cattle and wild goats.

Anchorena 1901-1902 expedition
Anchorena 1901-1902 hunting expedition. From [2]

He visited the region when it was still a wild and mostly unknown area. He immediately fell in love with it, and after visiting Victoria Island on Lake Nahuel Huapi where he camped and hunted wild goats, he met Argentine explorer and scientist Francisco Pascasio Moreno and enlisted his help to secure ownership of the island.

By law, islands in Argentina belong to the Federal Government, so Anchorena was unable to own Victoria Island, yet he managed to have a law passed through Congress (Ley 5263) in 1907 which leased it to him for 99 years.

He soon built a shipyard, planted crops, introduced exotic plants, trees and animals (so that he and his friends could hunt them). Subjected to relentless criticism, he quit his lease in 1911 and purchased a plot of land close by, at Huemul Peninsula.

The interesting part of this story is that he brought into what is now a National Park, animals from other parts of the world and set them free on the island; these were red and axis deer, wild boar, pheasants and... brace yourself, this is really something unbelievable, he introduced brown bears (Ursus arctos) which he had purchased in Europe (this is something that could only be done in those days - imagine the ecological havoc that such an aciton could cause).

These are very large bears found exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere (from Canada, Alaska to Siberia, and Europe). They are big and mean. They can weigh up to 680 kg (1,500 lb).

All the references that I have found state that they apparently did not adapt to the island and died.[1]

I am certain that the first pair died during the trip, [3] yet he brought a second pair from Germany and another from Scotland. Did these die or did they survive? Did the keep to the island or escape swimming across the lake? Would Mr. Anchorena choose to keep quiet about his bears to abate criticism about his lavish life style? Did he take them with him to the mainland when he moved to his new ranch at Huemul Peninsula.

He also introduced European wild boars in his ranch at Huemul, which later (1999) swam across the Lake Nahuel Huapi returning to Victoria Island. They have successfully colonized it and are being eradicated.[5]

Not only are boars swimmers, brown bears are also very good swimmers, they enjoy the water (see the following photograph):

Swimming Brown Bear. From [4].

Nowadays there are no bears living in the cold or temperate areas of South America. The southernmost bears' habitat is in the tropical areas of Bolivia (Andean or spectacled bear). So Northern Hemisphere bears in Patagonia would occupy a unique niche without competitors. The question is, could they have survived outside of the island?

Perhaps they could have adapted fairly well to Nahuel Huapi's environment.

It has a similar climate to their Boreal home. Though food is not abundant, they may have found some exploitable resources.

Fish, even though at that time salmonids (trout) were just being introduced into the lakes so they would not be found in large numbers, the bears could have eaten them.

Insects and berries (not too abundant either), small rodents and marsupials could have been exploited as food.

I will keep on searching for information on this intriguing subject, which could explain unexpected bulky lake creatures seen later (i.e. Garret in 1910 who reported a big water creature close to the island at Paso Coihue at the base of Huemul Peninsula- read more in our post on Nahuelito).

New information - Jan 25th, 2010

I have posted on Patagonian Bears not the imported exotic ones, but on the possible existence of native bears in Patgonia.

[1] Biedma, Juan Martín. (2004). Toponimia del Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Bariloche:Ed. Caleuche.
[2] Anchorena, Aaron de, (1902). Descripción Geográfica de la Patagonia y valles andinos. B. Aires: Cia. Sudamericana de Billetes de Banco.
[3] Juarez, F., Diario Rio Negro. Historias Patagónicas: Cacerías de Anchorena en su isla y norte rionegrino. 25.02.2007.
[4] Brown Bears. Katmai National Park, Alaska. By Photographs by: Charles W. Melton.
[5] de la Vega Santiago, Invasión en Patagonia.

Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters

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