“Animals share with us the privilege of having a soul”
Darwin’s fox is considered an “umbrella species”, and by protecting the primary temperate forests it inhabits, the entire ecosystem can be preserved by this one little fox. But, despite such importance, it is now critically endangered. Large scale deforestation, agriculture, firewood production, wildfires, overgrazing and human settlement have all shamelessly played their part. As have uncontrolled, non-sustainable commercial logging and local poaching (though it is not entirely clear why they are being poached).
Once running along the entire coastline of southern Chile, there is little original habitat left for the foxes. The southern half and coastal ranges of the Island still have large expanses of pristine primeval forest, but for the rest; exotic timber plantations stand where vast, verdant forests once grew, and Darwin’s foxes have found themselves displaced and hungry.
But, there is another even greater threat to this small animal. One that is completely preventable. It seems visitors are not welcomed in the park with their dogs. But this does not stop them being there. Once inside the protected area, these same visitors irresponsibly allow their dogs to roam free. There is an abundance of domesticated dogs in Southern Chile, many of which use the park with their owners; and the park rangers have dogs, too. In fact, dogs are now considered a huge problem within the confines of these supposedly safe areas. They have chased, attacked and killed the foxes in such numbers they have become a recognised menace. Thousands of incidents have been documented including one of a dog attacking a vixen whilst feeding her cubs.
A bad perception by, and of, humans doesn’t help either. They are killed by farmers who, convinced their poultry is at risk, view them as a threat. The little foxes in turn, having learned not to fear man, stroll around in plain sight, making themselves easy to pick off. This is because they have become accustomed to visiting humans. The foxes often sleep under the parked cars as well. Sadly, most humans do not think to look before driving away, and there have been reported deaths amongst the fox population as a result. This naïve disposition, displayed by the foxes when interacting with humans, is seen as non-adaptive behaviour.
Their most protected environment is on the mainland in Nahuelbuta National Park. But only ten per cent of them live there. The other ninety per cent live on Chiloé Island (possibly the only long-term safe area for growing the population). But in winter, the foxes tend to leave the security of the location and move to more hospitable areas where they are at high risk from the loggers, the poachers and the local dogs. The dogs which not only kill them, but also expose them to parasites and viral diseases.
Known in Spanish as zorro de Darwin, zorro de Chiloé or zorro chilote, Darwin’s foxes have long bodies, short legs and long bushy tails. They have small muzzles and wide, round heads and can weigh up to six-and-a-half pounds. The head and body length is about twenty-one inches with an added tail length of nine inches. It is, in fact, the smallest of all fox species. It has a thick coat of greyish-black with rust-like colouring on the legs and around the ears, and a dark grey tail. Sometimes a white band can be seen across the chest. The underside is usually pale.
These delightful creatures are crepuscular. They usually hunt alone, but have been known to share carcasses. They are normally solitary animals, only coming together to breed. It is thought they may be monogamous, but little is really known of the species.
The breeding season starts in October and pups have been seen emerging from the den in December, so the gestation period could be about eight weeks. A litter of two to three pups are normally born who will be weaned around February. The pups are born altricial. Both parents take part in the care of them. The new family will stay together for an unlimited period of time and previous offspring may share the parents range as well. Adults foxes tend to breed annually and individuals and can live up to seven years.
The scientist Charles Darwin first discovered this endemic species in 1834, while he was on the Beagle survey expedition, and is quoted as saying: “He allowed me to walk behind him and actually kill him with my geological hammer”. What an obliging little fox!
Coastal sand dunes mixed with dense, evergreen forest, preferring secondary forest to old-growth forest in areas typical to temperate rainforest vegetation.
What they eat
A variety of food including birds, reptiles and small mammals, and insects, fruits, and seeds, depending on the season.
Habitat destruction, disease, attacks from unleashed dogs and persecution by farmers. Some are known to have been kept illegally as pets on Chiloé Island.
Status: Critically Endangered
Darwin’s fox (Lycalopex fulvipes) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered. It is also listed on CITES Appendix II and has been protected, not very well, by Chilean law since 1929. There are thought to be little over two hundred and fifty individuals left in the wild. There are no known Darwin’s foxes in zoos or breeding programmes.
Camera traps used in the Valdivian Coastal Reserve and the Alerce Costero National Park in southern Chile have shown the presence of Darwin’s fox. This important discovery means there is now a third location for the foxes, where previously only two were known: Nahuelbuta National Park and Chiloé National Park.
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