- Las Chinchillas National Reserve is the only place in the world dedicated to the protection of the Chilean chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera), a species that was considered extinct at the beginning of the 20th century and remains endangered today.
- In 2002, the construction of a road divided the reserve, threatening the survival of these animals; as compensation, the Ministry of Public Works promised to expand the protected area, though this measure is yet to materialize and a new mining project is seeking to set up just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the reserve.
- The Chilean chinchilla is not the only species affected; Las Chinchillas National Reserve is also home to foxes, opossums, Chilean iguanas, various cats and other species under some degree of threat.
Las Chinchillas National Reserve is located in the hills of the Coquimbo region, in the province of Choapa, where more than a decade-long drought has turned the earth yellow. The area is home to thorny plants, cacti and small streams that were once mighty rivers. Despite this, the protected natural area sustains the biodiversity of this unique territory, which borders the Atacama Desert and Chile’s central regions.
Foxes, opossums, lesser grisons, coruros (a species of rodent), Chilean iguanas, kodkods (the smallest cat in the Americas), pampas cats and pumas, all of which are under various degrees of threat, are just some of the animals that this area protects. However, the area’s flagship species, after which the reserve is named, is the Chilean chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera), a nocturnal rodent that has been hunted for its fur for years and was even considered extinct at the beginning of the last century.
The reserve is the only place in the world where this species is protected. Even so, in 2002, the area was significantly disturbed by the construction of a road through its land. As compensation, the Ministry of Public Works promised to expand the protected area, though this measure is yet to materialize, and threats to the area have increased, with a copper mine just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the reserve recently receiving an environmental permit.
A species thought to be extinct
The Chilean chinchilla, described by poet Gabriela Mistral as the most beautiful Chilean, “does not drink water directly but mainly obtains it from herbs, roots and fruits in its environment,” explains Siboney Pérez, a veterinarian from the University of Chile. The species also lacks sweat glands, making it susceptible to heatstroke, which is especially relevant given Chile’s current situation, as 2021 was the country’s fourth warmest and second driest year since 1961.
The species has a history of facing big challenges. It was even considered extinct as a result of hunting for fur. Currently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Chilean chinchilla as endangered.
According to Mario Ortiz, director of the reserve, the number of chinchillas that were hunted and exported was very high. “Between 1880 and 1920, an average of 500,000 skins per year were exported to the United States and Europe.” This amounted to around 5 million animals in 10 years, which, if extrapolated to four decades, totaled around 20 million animals hunted. However, as Ortiz notes, these numbers refer to only the export records of Coquimbo and Valparaíso and don’t account for skins exported by land or rejected.
Chinchilla skins were mainly used for clothing due to their highly dense fur (about 50 hairs per follicle, compared with humans, who only have one hair per follicle).
In the 1970s, after excessive hunting of the Chilean chinchilla, which was then thought to be extinct, American biologist Connie Mohlis traveled to the province of Choapa following information that the species still lived in the region.
Mohlis’ first expeditions, carried out in the mid-1970s, were unsuccessful. However, she eventually met an inhabitant of the province who hunted and kept some chinchillas. Thanks to a report published in 1977, the news of chinchillas existing in the region did not take long to spread, prompting various international organizations to push for the creation of a protected area for the species.
On Nov. 30, 1983, authorities established Las Chinchillas National Reserve, which is managed by the National Forest Corporation (CONAF). The creation of this reserve ended the 50-year gap between the protection granted by the 1929 law against hunting of wild chinchillas and the need for a site where the species could be studied and conserved. In 2006, the Chilean chinchilla was declared a “natural monument,” and hunting of the species was punishable regardless of territory, protected or not.
A protected area split in two
About 20 years had passed since the creation of the protected area when a road was built through it, splitting the reserve in two. The road is part of the D-705 route, which connects the rural sectors of Auco and Los Pozos. Environmental organizations and CONAF disagreed with its location.
According to Pérez, the reasons for opposing its construction were the serious consequences it could have for chinchillas and other animals in the reserve, as such a road would fragment habitats, decrease connectivity, create isolation among animals, cause difficulties in obtaining food and increase roadkill. These concerns were well-founded, as records indicated that these events were already occurring. The expert also notes that these impacts could be further worsened by the advancement of large mining projects, as such projects increase the amount of traffic.
To compensate for the damage, it was agreed that the construction of the road would be permitted in exchange for including 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) in the reserve. However, according to Mario Ortiz, due to the high price of the surrounding land, it was later determined that the amount of land of to be integrated would total only 100 ha (247 acres).
This land was expected to be handed over to CONAF in 2002 for its inclusion in the reserve, but this is still pending, despite scientific studies having proven the existence of large chinchilla populations around unprotected streams near the reserve. In fact, some studies describe neighboring sites more abundant in chinchillas than those within the protected area, with numbers between 900 and 5,000 animals. These studies demonstrate the need to expand the reserve.
One such site is the Curicó stream, where a 2011 CONAF survey recorded a high number of animals, which led the agency to recommend incorporating the area and its management into the reserve.
In 2015, the Superintendency of the Environment penalized the Ministry of Public Works with 440 annual tax units (approximately $400,000 at the time) for not having carried out the compensation measure on time. However, more than seven years on, the expansion of the protected area still hasn’t happened, and a new threat is once again putting the reserve at risk.
Mongabay Latam sent questions to the Ministry of Public Works but had not received a response by the time of publication.
The threat of mining
Despite the difficulties, Las Chinchillas National Reserve has managed to successfully overcome the threats to the endangered species. In fact, according to Jorge Luis Silva, provincial head of CONAF Choapa, “The creation of the wilderness area on top of other measures (e.g., a greater appreciation of the species, a hunting ban, environmental legislation and the species’ designation as a natural monument) have allowed chinchilla populations to recover.”
However, the reserve now faces a new threat: the El Espino project, just 10 km from the reserve, is seeking to extract up to 51 million tons of copper per year. The project, run by the company Pucobre, already has an environmental permit, and according to the company’s website, is awaiting sectoral permits to start operations, which will directly impact the species.
Although science has widely demonstrated the importance of buffer zones for protected areas (i.e., a surrounding area that works as a protective belt and can reduce the negative impacts of human activities), throughout Chile, such protection is lacking.
According to experts, El Espino will intensify the impacts created by the construction of the road, as it will considerably increase the volume of traffic. According to information published by the Environmental Assessment Service, a maximum increase of 103 trips per day is possible, including trucks, buses and light vehicles and seven trips per day by vehicles carrying hazardous substances.
Furthermore, as the environmental impact study notes, the construction of the project will affect 49.66 hectares (122.7 acres) of native conservation forestland, with endemic plant species Monttea chilensis and Porlieria chilensis (guayacán) being most affected.
To compensate for this damage, Pucobre proposed a plant repopulation program, while also assuring a plan will be implemented to rescue and relocate fauna species.
Although CONAF approved these mitigation measures, in an environmental impact study, CONAF’s regional branch specified that the ecosystem gains of the company’s proposed conservation measures is not clear.
Despite various efforts to contact representatives of Pucobre, Mongabay Latam had not received a response by the time of publication.