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Roast Armadillo – a recipe for extinction

Katharine and David Lowrie

armadilo 225x300 Roast Armadillo – a recipe for extinctionSalta Province, northern Argentina. Two children stand by the side of the road. A silver car with blackened windows drives passed. The girls wave something at it. The car continues, but suddenly grinds to a halt and reverses. Three portly men in white trousers and shades, step out of the car to inspect what they’re holding. One turns his back to urinate. The other two examine the coveted possession.

It’s a mammal, an armadillo. Specifically, the little, southern three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes matacusis). The men are laughing and shouting, “Flaco, tan flaco”, “Thin, too thin”. Smiling and shaking their heads in mirth, they get back into their seats, turn up the music and screech away. The disappointed children watch their exit through a cloud of dust.

Before we started running the length of South America, I never, never, imagined we would have the privilege of observing this ancient group of mammals in the wild. Armadillos were firmly stored in my head as exotic, elusive creatures, things of books and distant lands. But one day, in the wintry south of Chilean Patagonia, as the last thin rays of sun disappeared over the horizon, we caught sight of one hurriedly crossing the road some 20 metres in front of us.

We were lucky, one woman whom we spoke to, who had lived in the area for over 10 years, had never seen the Patagonian armadillo, or piche (Zaedyus pichiy). Over the coming months we would count tens of his clan squished on the road, but only once more would we see one alive, bustling about its daily activities.

As we ran north through the screaming wind of Argentina’s Patagonia and its baking chaco (scrub-woodland), we soon became familiar with the major threat to armadillo populations; hunting, for food and to a lesser extent for pets. Countless people from shepherds, to hair-dresses, teachers to radio presenters, licked their chops in glee at the mention of these armoured animals.

The chaco woodlands of Argentina stretch for endless spiky miles into the shimmering heat-haze of the horizon. From a rare vantage point, the only possibility is that you are looking at a vast forgotten sea. Yet you are hundreds of miles from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

How, in this never-ending wilderness could anything be threatened? The 20th and 21st centuries provide the answer. We humans are too powerful, prolific, mechanised and efficient in our measures. Areas that once may have seemed impossible to penetrate are now accessed by growing numbers of hunters and their dogs.

To compound matters, many species of armadillos are ridiculously easy to catch. We watched a piche cross the road in front of us, before zigzagging back again. To our amazement, we found it a few footsteps from the roadside, with its head buried in a low bush. Like the proverbial ostrich, it seemed content that as long as it couldn’t see us, we couldn’t see it! After some time it dashed a couple of metres away and dug into the ground with its powerful hind claws, but parts of its armoured plates remained exposed. Little surprise then, how, like so many of its family, it is such easy prey.

We walk over to the girls, still grasping their armadillo by the roadside. A tiny stream of urine leaks from the little creature. It’s natural defence of rolling into a ball offers no protection from their clasp. Its sturdy claws shake and its damp eyes stare, petrified. The girls are asking a pathetic 30 pesos (£3) for their trophy. I desperately want to buy it and set it free into its native habitat, but I know this can only fuel the trade. The longer they hold the little animal in their hands, the longer it will be before another armadillo is snatched from its habitat.

The hunting of this armadillo is illegal, as it is for many other of the 20 living species of armadillo in their America’s range. The level of conservation threat to individual species varies. This southern-thee banded armadillo is classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as near threatened, as their population decreasing.

The giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), weighing up to an incredible 60kg, is listed as both IUCN vulnerable and Appendix 1 priority in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In contrast, the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), the only representative of the family present in the USA, is of least concern and is actually increasing in population and range (IUCN). But for many species, such as the greater fairy armadillo (Calyptophractus retusus) and the pink fairy armadillo (Chlamyphorus truncatus) however, population data are still deficient. Unfortunately, perspective diners and the hunters pay little attention to such subtleties.

Humans have eaten wild foods such as armadillos for centuries. But the line between the hunter and hunted has dramatically changed. The advent of engines and guns and the explosion of the human population have created an overwhelming shift in favour of the hunter.

Aid from companies, governments or individuals would greatly assist in the capture of basic population and ecologic metrics and inform whether sustainable hunting is possible. As would funding to ensure that hunters and consumers can identify species that can sustain a low level of sensitive hunting and those that cannot. Support for increased law-enforcement would further protect vulnerable species.

For many armadillo species, the impact of hunting is compounded by the loss and degradation of habitat and the demands of the pet trade industry. These threats are also among the factors affecting 16,928 threatened species of the 44,838 world species assessed by IUCN.

We all have the choice as to whether we want to conserve our world’s incredible biodiversity. Whether our children and grandchildren could also have the choice to see an armadillo in the wild or learn about the intriguing behaviour and ecology of one of these living mammals. We can donate to conservation charities and ensure we choose foods and goods that don’t impact on their ecosystems. Or we can choose to watch another species take the road to extinction.

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