THE SHORT-TAILED CHINCHILLAS, a high-altitude South American rodent, was hunted almost to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries for its highly-prized fur. Now endangered, a small colony of the species is worth far more alive than dead, skinned, and dried.
The colony in question sits atop 3.5 million ounces of extractable gold, a resource set to be developed by Gold Fields, a South African-based gold mining company. Gold Fields’ CEO Nick Holland said in 2017 at a mining conference in Cape Town that the chinchillas were one of the main obstacles to the project but the company was determined to find a way to protect the colony.
Big mining initiatives take years to roll, with conservation compliance an increasingly crucial part of the package. Gold Fields’ environmental permit for the Salares Norte mining project — which has an $860 million construction price tag — hinged on it finding a way to move the chinchillas, which are protected under Chilean law. The result is a kind of mini Noah’s Ark initiative high in the mountains of northern Chile.
But not everyone is sure the project will protect the rodents. Its success — or failure — will offer one test of how mining companies are responding to renewed government and investor pressure to account for conservation impacts.
Started in August, Gold Fields’ conservation operation — expected to take nine-months — aims to trap and move 25 chinchillas from the mine site to an area with suitable habitat around two and a half miles away. Their fate is linked to a project that could generate billions of dollars down the road. On the other hand, the cost of the chinchilla project to date is $400,000, including population surveys using satellite technology in rough country.
Gold Fields hails from South Africa, where conservationists pioneered techniques for the capture and relocation of megafauna in the 1950s. Captures of lion, elephant, and rhino typically involve darting, often from helicopters, leaving little room for error. Such methods were initially developed with aims that included the repopulation of the Kruger National Park with white rhinos from KwaZulu-Natal, at the time the pachyderms’ last refuge.
Operation chinchilla will hardly have the drama of an elephant capture. The short-tailed chinchillas are being moved via small traps to an area that scat and other evidence suggest was once a part of their range, according to Luis Ortega, the Chilean environmental manager overseeing the rodent removal. The animals are easy prey: Fur hunters can scoop the rabbit-sized rodents by hand from their shallow dens, Ortega said.
“We use a trap that is baited inside and closes when the chinchilla enters,” he added. The device, a Tomahawk trap, sounds fearsome but is non-lethal. The bait is a mix of almonds, nut shells, and grass, with an added sweetener the rodents curiously find irresistible: vanilla extract.
“The entire process must be carried out for each of the nine rocky areas where the animals will be removed during the construction of the mine,” Ortega said. “According to the government approved process, two attempts to capture specimens must be made on each rocky area, each lasting 10 days.” If the attempt is unsuccessful, the operation must be suspended for 20 days before it is attempted again, to minimize disturbance.
When each chinchilla is trapped and taken to its new territory, it will be placed in a wire-mesh enclosure for a few weeks to adapt to its new surroundings, and then monitored with radio collars — techniques also often used with transfers of megafauna like rhinos and Cape buffalo.
The operation will take place in arduous territory between 12,800 and 15,400 feet above sea level by a team of experts who know the area. While the chinchilla is protected by law, its new habitat is only protected through the duration of the project, during which the company will monitor the species.
Outside experts have some reservations. “Yes, live-trapping in Tomahawk traps will be a negative experience for chinchillas, and mortality/death is possible,” wrote Curtis Bosson, a Canadian wildlife biologist who has studied small mammal trapping and relocation, in an email.
“Relocation will be a highly negative experience for them,” Bosson added. “Chinchillas are a social, colonial species, they are not used to large disruptions in their daily routine. They know where to find food and who their neighbor is on a daily basis. Relocation would disrupt all of this.”
Originally published by Undark