Wildlife Photographer of the Year: a baby beaver given a fighting chance
This male beaver was found orphaned on a riverbank near a campsite - he was a just baby (called a kit) and weighed about a kilogramme.
Photographer Suzi Eszterhas's adorable image of this little creature clutching a leaf is one of 25 shortlisted for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year LUMIX People's Choice Award.
The North American beaver (Castor canadensis) is best known for building dams across streams and rivers to create ponds and construct 'lodges' fit for a family. These structures provide shelter and refuge from predators, as well as a place to dry off after a swim.
Commenting on the shortlist, Suzi says, 'I am thrilled that this little beaver kit has been nominated for the LUMIX People's Choice Award.'
Something to root for
As soon as he was found, this tiny beaver was brought to the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington, Washington.
Baby beavers are normally cared for by their parents for up to two years, meaning this baby kit had been abandoned by its parents. Suzanne West, Executive Director at Sarvey, explains that coming across a beaver kit alone is a worrying sign.
'A baby beaver should never be alone. If someone finds one alone by a river or stream, it is orphaned and should be immediately taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility. Keep it warm and dry like you would with any baby, and get it help from a professional.'
Suzi is also unequivocal in her support the work that is done at Sarvey and other similar centres.
'In the United States and many other parts of the world, nearly every community has a wildlife rescue centre.
'The people there are quietly and relentlessly working to save animals, without much recognition or thanks for any of their efforts. But they keep on doing it.'
Rescue centres are unique settings for professional photographers accustomed to working in the wild, as there are opportunities to spend significant amounts of time with individual animals.
Suzi says, 'You find yourself rooting for them - and heartbroken when things don't go well for them.'
'So often these are animals trying very hard to exist in a challenging world dominated by humans.'
In search of innocence
Notwithstanding her work at Sarvey, it is in the wild where Suzi specialises, and she is no stranger to success in Wildlife Photographer of the Year. In 2006 her image titled Human Encounter, of a baby gorilla taken in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, was Specially Commended.
Suzi's subjects are at the heart of her photography, a key component to her storytelling being what we perceive as innate innocence.
'We grow up being taught to be strong and not to show weakness and are ashamed if we do,' says Suzi, 'but I think we yearn for vulnerability and are attracted to images that show vulnerability in its most beautiful innocent form - like baby animals.
'It's funny how easy it can be to get someone to care about cheetahs in Africa or polar bears in the Arctic, but you can't get them to extend compassion to the raccoons or the skunks that live in their backyard.'
The road to recovery
A fully grown North American beaver, along with the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber), is the second largest rodent on Earth, weighing 11-32 kilogrammes.
They feast on a diet of leaves, buds and tree bark. Fish are most certainly not on the menu.
Beavers are considered to be 'keystone' species, as the ponds and wetlands created by their dams increase the biodiversity of the local ecosystem. Previous research from the University of Stirling found that the presence of beavers in wetlands can lead to 33% more plant species and 26% more beetles.
The beaver kit in Suzi's image had an arduous journey before he could contribute so valuably to his local ecology.
The wildlife rehabilitators at Sarvey don camouflaging suits to look less human and prevent malimprinting - when a negative, non-reversible bond is created with the caregiver. They also paired the beaver with an adult female who had suffered her own traumatic journey.
Suzanne was a key figure in the rehabilitation process.
She says, 'the adult was found on the side of the road in terrible shape. She smelled of infection and actually died during an exam but was brought back with heroic measures - it was CPR only for a beaver.'
Thankfully, the older female made a remarkable recovery, so much so that she and the young male were released together.
'We kept her almost a full year longer than we would ever keep a patient like her, solely so she could be a surrogate and released with the juvenile beaver.'
'Foster parenting' in rehab is a good way to have young orphans raised by their own species.'
'There were no guarantees that the two would stay together at the release location. For these two, we kept them over the winter and released the following spring. He was about a year old. Generally they stay with the family group for about two years, but he had all the skills needed to be on his own.'
Beavers in Britain
The British Isles have seen a recent boom in populations of the Eurasian beaver after the species was wiped from the region around 400 years ago.
In 2016, the Scottish government formally recognised it as a native species after a mammal reintroduction programme, the first of its kind in British history.
Only last year, a pair of Eurasian beavers were released in the Forest of Dean in a trial reintroduction. The aim was to enhance biodiversity and provide scientists with the opportunity to study the impact of beaver dams on areas that are prone to flooding.
While it is too soon to assess whether or not the beaver will return to Britain permanently, as a species its ecological impact is unquestionable.
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