beaver,  museum,  zoo

Bebrus in Latvia

This week I was on holiday in Riga, Latvia. One of our outings was to the Riga Zoo (Rīgas Zooloģiskais dārzs). Ever the researcher, I was on the look out for the animals that I’ve been working with on this project, beaver and muskox. Unfortunately, I didn’t see either one. The zoo supposedly does have a beaver, but he is most of the time out doing school show-and-tell according to the zoo information. In any case, I didn’t see him.

Entrance to the Riga Zoo
Entrance to the Riga Zoo. Photo by FA Jørgensen, all rights reserved.


In spite of that disappointment, the Riga Zoo has a connection to my beaver reintroduction research. In November 1934, Bever-Jenssen applied for a licence to send a pair of wild-caught Norwegian beavers to the Riga Zoo along with one pair for reintroduction in the Latvian countryside the following spring. According to the Riga Zoo’s online history, the ship Nidaros arrived in Riga on 11 April 1935 with beavers (bebrus is plural & bebrs is singular for beaver in Latvian), as well as reindeer, rhesus monkey, and English park cows for the zoo. Presumably the beaver pair for reintroduction were on the same boat. According to Francis Harper’s Extinct and Vanishing Mammals of the Old World (1945), this pair was set out in Smiltene to the northeast of Riga (although he says they were set out in 1936, which must be wrong).

These weren’t the first reintroduced bebrus in Latvia. Bever-Jenssen had sent two beavers from Norway to Latvia in 1928 (again Harper uses a different year, in this case 1927, but I’m going with the dates Jenssen writes since he was directly involved). These beavers were released in the State Forest of Kurland. They found themselves right at home and soon multiplied.

With success comes challenges. The Latvian Consulate General in Oslo sent a letter to Jenssen on 10 March 1939 asking for his help. The beavers had done so well that “in the district where they are now, they have practically eaten up everything with the name asp, and the forestry department wants therefore to move some of the beaver over to other districts.” They wanted to know what Jenssen would charge to come catch and relocate them and when he could do it. He wrote back 11 days later and remarked,

It is with great satisfaction that I note that the attempt in 1928 to reintroduce Norwegian beaver has succeed to this degree, that one is now capable of capturing the population to move them to other districts in the country: a “taxation” that you can really expect to get a high return on.

He recommended midsummer for the trip, but he’d have to check on the dates for two visitors who were coming to pick up beavers in summer 1939, and that it would cost 1,000 Norwegian kr (approx. 30,000 NOK / 5,000 US$ in 2013) plus travel expenses. I’m not sure if Jenssen made the trip, but I doubt he could have gone any later, as World War II arrived in the Baltic states with the Soviet occupation in 1940. Even if he moved these particular beavers, they would spread out on the own and probably reoccupy the area.

The beavers in Latvia continued to grow in number. In the 1950s, an additional 10 beavers from eastern Europe were reintroduced and beavers from Belarus spread northward into southeast Latvia. The population was estimated as 1,400 in 1973 and it was estimated as 70,000 in 1997 (Halley and Rosell 2002). Bebrus is back in a big way in Latvia.


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