Emaciated black-necked swans have been falling from the sky here, alarming people in this scenic university town and setting off a national clamor.
VALDIVIA, Chile Emaciated black-necked swans have been falling from the sky here, alarming people in this scenic university town and setting off a national clamor.
At least 130 swans have been found dead since late October and most of the survivors have migrated from the Carlos Anwandter Sanctuary near the southern Chilean city of Valdivia, which was home to more than 6,000 swans. Those that remain float wanly in the wetland, too weak to fly.
Black-necked swans are not an endangered species, yet their dramatic demise has grown into a national scandal. Environmentalists blame a new pulp mill in the area and believe the country's natural resources are being sacrificed.
Scientists quickly linked the swans' disappearance to a massive die-off of their prime source of food, Brazilian waterweed known locally as luchecillo.
The government has ordered a study to determine what killed the leafy water plant that until a few months ago dominated the 12,051-acre sanctuary. But most townspeople believe the culprit is the $1.2 billion Arauco wood pulp mill, which began operating in February upriver from the wetland.
"This disaster occurred less than a year after the pulp mill was completed. The ecosystem of the sanctuary is incredibly fragile and it just collapsed," said Ximena Rosales, an environmentalist and organizer of the Valdivia-based Action for the Swans, which has been helping to rescue and relocate ailing birds.
Arauco, a unit of conglomerate Empresas Copec and the world's third-largest wood pulp producer, did not respond to requests for comment.
In a recent public statement, the company said there was no link between the mill and the swans' death. It promised to cooperate with the study commissioned by the National Commission on the Environment, known as Conama, which is being conducted by scientists at Austral University in Valdivia.
Newcomer Swans Loved in Valdivia
The striking black-and-white birds, which are native to southern South America, became part of the identity of Valdivia, 460 miles south of Santiago after a 1960 earthquake created the wetland.
Chileans often take for granted their natural beauties -- glaciers, volcanoes, forests and striking coastland. But the passion over the swans could translate into a stricter watch on future industrial projects.
The economy of the country of 15 million people nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes is driven by exports of copper, wood pulp, wine, and fertilizer.
"Independent of the final results of the study, the questions surrounding the plant in Valdivia will inevitably extend to future pulp mills in the country and the difficulties related to establishing them will multiply," said a recent editorial in influential daily newspaper El Mercurio.
Swan activists held a demonstration in the capital and called on President Ricardo Lagos to suspend activity at the pulp mill or close it down for good.
Parasites and Iron
Preliminary results in the government-commissioned study showed the dead swans were infested with a number of parasites and had elevated iron in their kidneys and livers. Some weighed as little as half their normal weight.
Professor Eduardo Jaramillo, an aquatic ecologist coordinating the study, said the high iron levels could be the key. Scientists want to know where it came from and if it contributed to the luchecillo withering away. That the iron itself killed the swans is viewed as less likely. Some environmentalists believe the iron came from the pulp mill.
Iron levels are naturally high in the area and the pulp mill's effluent contains iron within regulatory limits, Jaramillo said. One possibility is that the extra iron from the mill plus the iron already present in the area was too much for the luchecillo, he said. Other contaminants could have played a hand also.
Professor Jorge Ulloa, an avian pathologist, said he can't predict if the sanctuary's swan population will recover. "This all depends on the recovery of the ecosystem. I don't believe this will be a short-tern recovery. I believe it will be quite a while," he said.