Why Capybaras ‘Invaded’ a Rich Gated Community in Argentina

GThe wealthy of ated communities are noted for their lush lawns and pools. In Argentina, they’re also known as the home of the world’s largest rodents.

On a drizzly afternoon in March 2022, a family of nine capybaras—the larger ones weighing in at around 130 pounds—huddle together under the hedges that surround a famous soccer player’s mansion. The capybaras are content to eat grass and don’t look up at people or cars. This is just a small selection of hundreds of capybaras who have invaded Nordelta in the outskirts Buenos Aires over the past two years.

Here, the capybaras are always being present. For the first two decades after the community’s construction in 1999, they kept themselves hidden, coming out only at night and darting from trees to lakes. That began to change in 2020. With Nordelta’s well-heeled human residents confined to their homes by Argentina’s long and strict COVID-19 lockdown, its furrier inhabitants thrived. According to local scientists, the capybaras spread rapidly across parks that were now vacant, increasing their number by 16% per year. The capybaras became bolder after a dry and unusually severe winter in Argentina. This killed much of Argentina’s grass, so they ventured out into private gardens.

“That’s where the conflict started,” says Marcelo Canton, head of communications for the Nordelta Residents Association. The capybaras—known as “carpinchos” in Argentina—ate up lawns and massacred rose bushes. The capybaras caused accidents in traffic, knocking delivery men off their bikes. The worst part was when the capybaras became aggressive towards dogs who approached them in their new territory. “Dog owners were very upset,” Canton says. “Especially because here, the dogs are mostly French Bulldogs or other small dogs. They can’t defend themselves.”

In July, a group of residents went to the press, griping about a capybara “invasion” and calling for authorities to move the animals out to a nature reserve. Both in Argentina and internationally, the complaints sparked a massive backlash. Viral posts on social media accused Nordeltans of hypocrisy, since their luxury neighborhood is built on the capybara’s historic wetland habitat, with some dubbing the animals “class warriors.” It didn’t help Nordelta’s case that capybaras are extremely cute, with goofy rectangular heads and narrow eyes that make them look permanently sleepy.

But for all the anger leveled at Nordelta, the neighborhood does have a real problem on its hands: how do you deal with an influx of wildlife that wasn’t there before in densely populated urban space? These are questions cities all over the globe have to address. In addition to increasing climate change’s effects, urban expansion is also destroying forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems that have supported animals for centuries. And at the same time, cities have become “incredibly enriched environments,” often containing an abundance of food, water, and shelter compared to their surrounding areas, says Peter Alagona, an environmental historian and author ofThe Accidental Ecosystem.As a result, animals that have lost their natural habitats are making cities their home.

Nordelta’s confrontation with capybaras is just the beginning. Alagona believes that cities need to rethink their relationships with wildlife in urban areas. “We need to start thinking about cities as multi-species communities, as potential refuges for creatures that, in the future, we may not see in natural spaces,” he says. “There’s a grand ecological rearrangement taking place and cities are part of it.”

About 15 minutes west of NordeltaThere are lots of mosquitoes and tall grass. Wildcats, lizards, and nutria (the capybara’s smaller cousin), roam unseen by humans on roughly 750 acres along the Luján River. Graciela Capodoglio was a former teacher who helped create this nature reserve in Pilar (a suburb of Buenos Aires) in 2003. This occurred around the time that many gated communities were being established around the city. Her goal was to use the space to teach city residents about the importance of protecting nature; today, the reserve is one of the region’s last natural wetlands.

“With all this development, the animals have been corralled into smaller and smaller spaces,” Capodoglio says over the hum of bugs and birds. “And now, the whole country is suffering from a drought,” which further threatens the wildlife here. The clearing of tens of millions of hectares of the Brazilian Amazon and other rainforests, mainly for agriculture, has led, in the last few years, to the disappearance of South America’s “flying rivers,” which once carried moisture across the region. Due to rising temperatures and drier conditions due to climate change, wildlife and food sources have been cut off and forest fires spread. As wildfires rose at Corrientes’ northern border, Argentina in February, newspapers printed dramatic photos of capybaras and alligators fleeing from the flames.

Capodoglio was “furious” when she read news stories about the capybara “invasion” in Nordelta. And again, in January 2022, when similar stories popped up about an invasion of tegus—black-and-white lizards native to the region—in gated communities near the Pilar reserve. “The word invasion drives me crazy! They were here first,” she says.

Pre-pandemic, residents were able to contact shelters for animals in distress to remove tegus from their property. Capodoglio reports that residents called the reserve after they discovered these centers were closed. “I try to explain to them that the poor tegu is an inoffensive animal,” she says, noting that the lizards, will cut off their own tails to run away from dogs or larger animals that catch them. “And it helps you keep rats out of your house! Why is it necessary to view all animals as attacking? It’s such an anthropocentric view. It pisses me off.”

Canton of the Nordelta residents’ association claims that the people who wanted to eliminate all capybaras in the area were a small minority, about 100 out of 45,000. After the media firestorm, he says, a second group of “environmentalist residents” spoke up, opposing any measures that could affect the capybaras or their urban habitat. “Then finally, a third group in the middle came up, who said ‘okay we have to respect the animals, but what are we going to do?’”

This group argued for intervention in the wildlife department in Buenos Aires. They also wrote an open letter to the press in August 2021. They pointed out that capybaras had been driven almost to extinction by poachers in Tigre, the municipality where Nordelta is located, by the 1990s, and that the creation of the gated community—where hunters don’t venture—had saved the animals. But, they argued, the area “could no longer feed or sustain” today’s numbers. The province agreed, based on their observations from a visit in June, that there was an “overpopulation” problem. They then began to work with the municipal government and the Nordelta residents association—which acts almost like a local government because of Nordelta’s private status—on a plan to restore “harmonious coexistence” between capybaras and humans, according to Canton, consulting with capybara experts at Argentina’s national scientific research council, and a team of biologists hired by Nordelta.

Part of the plan is to limit capybara populations. Officials have ruled out the idea of moving some capybaras to nearby nature reserves—suggested by the residents to bring the population back to the level it stood at five years ago—on the grounds that they had not learned to fear their natural predators and wouldn’t last in the wild, Canton says. And there will, “of course,” be no culling of the animals in Nordelta, he adds. However, capybara vasectomies remain on the table. After consulting vets, the province has given its approval for a trial that would be conducted over a limited number of male dominants. They will then monitor their progress for several years. A deer vasectomy program with similar goals in Staten Island has resulted in a “sizable decrease” in the deer population since 2016, but proved controversial among residents and conservationists. “That is a mid- to long-term solution,” Canton says, “and it’s the only less natural measure that’s under consideration.”

The focus is on soft measures for now. To start, there was an awareness campaign that used newsletters, social media and outreach to local newspapers to remind residents capybaras were generally harmless.

Next, the residents association began creating new habitats for the capybaras inside Nordelta, so they wouldn’t need to resort to gardens. To make the capybaras’ lives easier, the human inhabitants stopped trimming the grass in parks near lakes and other areas. They also left some wild spaces around town. Then they installed three “buffer zones,” made up of reeds and bushes for the animals to shelter in, at the edges of lakes within the neighborhood. Another site is being developed at the mouth of Nordelta’s polluted stream.

Canton states that capybaras have been kept away from the new rewilded areas by Canton. The real test, though, will come in the next few months, as the dry winter season in Argentina puts pressure on the giant rodents’ food supply.

Global conversationAs the voice of biodiversity conservation grows louder, cities across the globe are working to adapt their urban designs so that humans and wildlife can share space in an increasingly climate-changed environment. London’s central West End district has seen the biggest landowners add vegetation to their roofs, walls, and streets in order to increase the number of plants that are needed for bees, native birds, and bats. Wildlife bridges, which allow animals to safely cross roads or railways that have divided parts of their habitats, are in vogue in many cities: a network of reindeer viaducts are being built across Sweden, the largest ever animal overpass is under construction in Los Angeles, and in March Houston opened a “landbridge” connecting the two sides of its Memorial park, which have been separated for a century. New York City made it mandatory that all new buildings include bird-friendly features like patterned glass last year to avoid crashes.

Increased risks of drought, heatwaves and flash floods are prompting cities and towns to restore green space. Trees can absorb water, regulate temperature, and help with climate control. Local governments should recognize that animals have their own “ecosystem services” to offer, argues Alagona. Cities could instead of hiring pest control companies, plant more trees to encourage owl nesting, and make power lines less dangerous to avoid owl deaths. “If we have more owls, we definitely have fewer rats,” he says. “By thinking about wildlife and coordinating across different departments, we can create an environment that’s healthier for everybody.”

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