Chinchillas are rodents native to the Andes in Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Argentina. They are well adapted to life in these high, arid climates. However, some of these adaptations have made wild chinchillas vulnerable to over-hunting and trapping, to the point that the short-tailed chinchilla is known only from a few caught in 2001, while the population of the long-tailed chinchilla, thought once to be extinct, continues to decline despite protection by Chile and other governments in South America.
The Price of Fur
Wild chinchillas are purpose-built for high, cold climates. Where most animals have one hair per hair follicle, chinchillas can have up to 50 incredibly soft, plush hairs per follicle. This soft dense fur makes the chinchilla pelt one of the most desirable in the world. From the mid-1800s, chinchillas were killed in their millions to satisfy the craving of the fur industry. Even today, despite protection laws for chinchillas in Andean countries, and despite the fact that chinchilla farming has eased the pressure on wild populations, these populations are still declining.
Longer Gestation Means Fewer Litters
Chinchillas reach sexual maturity at 8 months of age. They can produce two litters per year, usually with one or two offspring in each, born fully furred and with eyes open after 111 days of gestation. Because of the relative maturity of the offspring, they are better able to regulate temperature and fend for themselves soon after birth than many other rodent offspring. But the long gestation period also means that the wild chinchillas cannot reproduce at a rate that keeps up with the decline of wild populations.
Habitat Destruction Pushes Decline
Although some chinchillas have adapted to live in rocky crevices, most chinchillas prefer living in tunnels dug in the cardon bromeliad, which has advantages over ground dwelling in that it deters predators. However, chinchilla habitat destruction from mining, farming, grazing and wood gathering, not to mention hunters and trappers, has caused problems with shelter for these small mammals. One small preserve exists in the Andean foothills of Chile, but wild chinchilla populations are declining even there.
Adaptability in Diet
Chinchilla are vegetarians, favouring mosses, roots and bulbs for eating, but able to consume many different types of vegetation. Despite the chinchilla's adaptability in this area, habitat destruction has taken its toll once again. Scientists are developing nursery stocks of plants eaten by chinchillas in order to replant and preserve these food species.