Wild Chinchillas (Amy Deane)
Chinchillas are endangered due to exploitation of the animal for fur. Protected wild populations continue to decline. Its habitat is threatened by human land alterations in north central Chile. Without funds, research, and conservation, wild populations will be extinct in the near future (Jimenez, pers. comm.). Chinchillas are originally gray in color with a small squirrel-like body, large mouse-like ears and a bushy tail. The characteristic that they are best known for is their plush fur. Where humans have one hair from each follicle, a chinchilla has more than 50 hairs from a single follicle (Meadow, 1969). An adult chinchilla weighs between 400 and 500 grams. Their gestation period lasts 111 days. One or two young are born with eyes open, fully furred and active or precocial. Sexual maturity is attained at around eight months, and females can have up to two litters per year. When compared to other rodents, chinchillas have a long gestation periods resulting in fewer offspring. Chinchillas are nocturnal and live in colonies.Two species of chinchillas are recognized as: Chinchilla chinchilla frm. brevicaudata (Blue Bolivian Chinchilla), and Chinchilla lanigera (Lanigera) (Nowak, 1991; Jimenez, 1996). Exploitation for the fur trade to markets in Europe and North America started by the onset of the 19th century and demand for the pelts continues today. Requiring a hundred pelts per coat, this fur is among the most expensive and rarest in the world. "In 1928, a coat made of Bolivian pelts cost half a million gold marks" (Bickel, 1937). In 1992, a domestic chinchilla fur coat on sale at Elan Furs (Indianapolis, Indiana) cost $22,000.
The chinchilla population declined steadily because of hunting and trapping. At the end of the nineteenth century, the once abundant animals had become endangered. Normally, if a mated pair has two offspring which survive in their first litter, replacement of the original pair has occurred. Any additional offspring are seen as recruitment or population growth, which eventually stabilizes the species.However, humans were hunting and trapping the animal for its fur faster than the animal could repopulate themselves resulting in scarcity of the species. According to Meadow (1969), "the disappearance of the once beautiful chinchilla alarmed the South American governments of Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. By 1918 all of them had placed an embargo on exportation of chinchilla furs, and had laws against trapping the animal." Of the 21 million killed, Iriarte (1986) reports that 7,179,640 pelts were exported from Chile between 1828 and 1916 (Jimenez, 1994). Chile enacted protection in 1898 but protection from hunting was probably too late for the existing wild populations (1994, Thornback, 1969). Any existing (or surviving) chinchillas were included among the endangered wild species mentioned in Appendix I of the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Fauna and Flora" (Stehnke, 1990; Nowak, 1991; Thornback, 1969). CITES places a ban on the exportation and importation of the animals and their pelts among agreeing countries. Although wild chinchillas' range once extended to Peru and Bolivia, it is now extinct there (Thornback, 1969; Jimenez, 1994). In Chile, wild chinchillas are listed as "En Peligro" or endangered (CONAF, 1988). As early as 1937, people recognized chinchilla populations had been severely altered but could probably "re-establish itself in 7 or 8 years" (Bidlingmaier, 1937). Since Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas- CNR's establishment 15 years ago, the animal has not re-established itself. Populations within the reserve continue to decline without clear explanations (Jimenez, 1994).
Where do they exist today?
C. lanigera's original range included the foothills of the Andes in Chile from northwest of Potrerillos south to Rio Choapa (1996). Wild C. lanigera was thought to be extinct (Noguer, 1970). In the mid-seventies, this species was rediscovered in providence IV, Region de Coquimbo, Chile. To protect these colonies, Corporacion Nacional Forestal -CONAF (the Chilean Park Service) established Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas-CNR in 1983. These colonies house fewer than 4000 chinchillas (recalculated from Jimenez, 1995). Less than half of the known colonies are within the reserve. Sixty percent of the colonies "had less than 50 individual whereas none had more than 500 individuals" and covered from fewer than two to more than 113 ha (1995). Today, disjunct populations of C. lanigera are located scattered in northern Chile. Most colonies are located on northern facing slopes but rocky southern slopes also host some chinchillas. Central Chile is geologically complex. In this region coastal mountains meet the Andean Range. These are crossed by transverse mountain chains. Topography changes abruptly and the sandy foothills of the Andes prove to be a difficult terrain for humans to climb. The area is dissected by an meandering intermittent river channel that is dry most of the year. This area is a semi-desert biome with two distinct seasons: a dry hot season and a mild wet season. Annual rainfall between 1980 and 1996 averaged 18 cm, most occurring during the winter wet season of June, July and August. Vegetation assemblages are characteristic of semi-arid and mediterranean climates and include many cacti and succulent species (Veliz, 1985). C. chinchilla was thought extinct in the wild. Dr. Jimenez found a wild colony on protected lands in Chile in 2001. Since, then, around a dozen colonies have been located in Chile and one in Bolivia (2017).
How do they live?
Most Chinchillas create tunnels within Puya berteroniana, cardon leaves. Other live in rock outcroppings or beneath the ground in tunnels made by other species. A succulent, terrestrial bromiliad, cardon can be found on equatorial slopes. Practices of trying to encourage, entice or force chinchillas out of their protective burrows led to the destruction of habitat. Chinchilleros (chinchillas trappers) used smoke, fire and explosives "to drive chinchillas out" (Jimenez, 1995). Disturbing their habitat can increase stress and place the animal in alert and defensive behaviors. This disruption reduces the amount of energy and time chinchillas have for rest and reproduction.
Conservation and management
Passive management techniques have apparently not resulted in increased chinchilla populations. Successful conservation programs must utilize active management techniques in order to encourage increases in recruitment. Fragmented habitat leaves gaps which prevent dispersal and expansion of chinchillas and colonies. Inter-colony gene flow must be possible in order for the species to survive. This exchange of genetic material is more likely to occur in areas where the species does not have to cross unprotected or hostile barriers in order to reach potential mates. Practices of re-vegetation can reduce barriers to genetic flow encouraging recruitment eventually resulting in higher populations. Actively creating habitat aids in conservation of this species by reducing competition and barriers while increasing available resources. Clearing land for hunting, mining and farming has resulted in habitat fragmentation as well as degradation. Practices of re-vegetation should try to: close gaps in distributions, increase habitat and reduce competition. Re-vegetation should include species which chinchillas depend upon. These should be planted to complement and expand colonies and their interconnections or corridors. Preservation and expansion of protected lands must continue in order to facilitate conservation efforts. Special ecological areas need protection from human disturbances if endangered animals are going to survive. Expansion of protected habitat must be planned, evaluated and carried out on an ongoing basis.
What do we do?
Save the Wild Chinchillas was formed to aid in conservation of wild chinchillas. Its goal is to ensure that these endangered animals do not become extinct. In order to meet this goal we have three objectives: educate people of all ages, collect funds to protect land and create sustainable preserves, promote awareness, and foster research. In order to facilitate conservation, including active management and ecosystem restoration, Save the Wild Chinchillas is working with the Chilean Park Service and Chilean schools to educate people closest to the wild colonies on how to help and not hurt chinchillas and their habitat. Locally, we visit schools and community meeting to teach about chinchillas and their habitat. Everyday members from around the world use educational materials available from the organization and its web site to teach others about endangered chinchillas and their conservation. Our efforts have been rewarded as some chinchilla colonies have expanded due to our in-situ habitat recoverey efforts. Our nursery, volunteer cabin, and restoration plots are located within the local communal landholding. Local landholders help us in collecting seeds and seedlings, growing them and planting them into restoration areas. We have planted more than 12,000 seedlings so far, and with the help of local workers and international volunteers, we are continuing to stabilize this ecosystem. By creating habitat for chinchillas, we aid in the preservation of at least 9 flora species and 17 faunal species of conservation concern. These include woody shrubs and trees as well as amphibians, birds and mammals such as the puma, another smaller cat species and two fox species. At an ecosystem scale, regeneration of local flora is expected to offset desertification and restore biodiversity.
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