To get to the Las Chinchillas National Reserve you have to go into the hills of the Coquimbo region, specifically in the province of Choapa, where the long drought has lasted more than a decade and has turned the earth yellow. There survive thorns, cacti, timid streams that once were mighty rivers. Despite this context, the protected natural area keeps alive the biodiversity of this territory which, being the border of the Atacama desert and the central regions of Chile, has unique characteristics.
Foxes, jacks, quiques, cururos, Chilean iguanas, güiñas, colocolo cats and pumas are some of the animals, all under some degree of threat, that this area protects. But its flagship species and which gives the reserve its name is the chilean chinchilla (lanigera chinchilla), a nocturnal rodent that for years was hunted for its fur and that at the beginning of the 20th century was even considered extinct.
The reserve is the only place in the world where the Chilean chinchilla is protected. Even so, in 2002 this area was seriously disturbed when a road was built in the middle of it. As compensation, the Ministry of Public Works promised to expand the protected area. Until today, this measure has not been complied with, while the threats increase: a mining project that seeks to extract copper just 10 kilometers from the reserve already has a approved environmental permit.
A species thought to be extinct
The Chilean chinchilla, described by Gabriela Mistral as the most beautiful Chilean, “does not drink water directly, but rather obtains it mainly from herbs, roots and fruits from the environment,” explains Siboney Pérez, a veterinarian from the University of Chile. In addition, “it does not have sweat glands, so it is susceptible to heat stroke”, a characteristic that is especially relevant in the current context of Chili: 2021 was the fourth warmest and second driest year since 1961.
The peculiar rodent has a history of resistance against great odds. In fact, the species was considered extinct as a result of hunting linked to the fur industry; Currently, the Chilean chinchilla is found Endangeredaccording to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Mario Ortiz, administrator of the reserve, assures that the number of specimens hunted and exported were very high. “Between 1880 and 1920, an average of 500,000 skins a year were exported to the United States and Europe. We are talking about 5 million specimens in 10 years, and if we extrapolate it to four decades, 20 million specimens were hunted”, says the expert. These numbers, however, correspond only to the export records from the ports of Coquimbo and Valparaíso, explains Ortiz, and “the skins that left by land are not considered, nor are the skins that were rejected for export.”
The main use that was given to chinchilla skins was the creation of clothing because, according to Pérez, their fur is very dense. “with 50 hairs in a follicle”. For comparison, humans have one hair per follicle.
In the 1970s, after excessive hunting and while the species was still thought to be extinct, American biologist Connie Mohlis traveled to the province of Choapa motivated by information that Chilean chinchillas still lived there.
His first expeditions, carried out in the mid-1970s, were unsuccessful. Finally, and almost without hope, the biologist herself met an inhabitant of the province who hunted chinchillas and kept some in her house. The news did not take long to spread thanks to a report released in 1977 and different international organizations pressured for the construction of a protection site for this species that was considered extinct.
Thus, On November 30, 1983, the Las Chinchillas National Reserve was created. which is administered by the National Forestry Corporation (Conaf). This fact put an end to the more than 50 years of gap between the protection by law of the Chilean chinchilla (1929) and the construction of a site where the conditions for its study and conservation actually exist. Later, in 2006, the Chilean chinchilla was declared a natural monumentwhich punishes your hunt regardless of the level of protection of the terrain where it is located.
A protected area split in two
About 20 years had passed since the creation of the protected area when a road was built in the middle of it, splitting the reserve in two. It’s about the route D-705 that unites the rural sectors of Auco with los Pozos. The location of the road provoked the rejection of environmental organizations and also of Conaf, assures Mario Ortiz.
The reasons for opposing this construction were that, according to Siboney Pérez, the consequences could be “very serious” for chinchillas and other animals in the reserve. Specifically, a highway would generate “a fragmentation of the habitat, decreasing connectivity, generating isolation between peers, difficulty in obtaining food and an increase in deaths from being run over.” The fears were not in vain since, according to the veterinarian, there are records that these events already occur. In addition, all these impacts could be exacerbated with the advancement of large mining projects, says the expert, since with them the influx of transport increases.
To compensate for the damage, it was agreed that the construction of the highway would be done in exchange for integrating 1,000 hectares into the reserve. However, “over time and due to the overpricing of the surrounding land, it was determined that it would only be 100 hectares,” says Ortiz.
Although the land was to be handed over to CONAF to include it as part of the reserve in 2002, this still has not happened even when scientific studies have proven the existence of large populations of chinchillas in streams near the reserve that are not protected. In fact, some investigations describe neighboring sites with an abundance of chinchillas greater than that existing within the protected area: between 900 and 5000 individuals. These studies demonstrate the need to expand the reserve.
One of those sites is the Curicó stream. A survey of chinchillas carried out by CONAF in 2011 concluded that said ravine has a significant presence of these animals, for which reason the agency recommended managing their incorporation into the reserve.
In 2015, the Environment Superintendence sanctioned with 440 Annual Tax Units to the Ministry of Public Works (about 400,000 dollars at the time) for not having carried out the compensation measure on time. However, seven years later, the expansion of the protected area remains unfulfilled, while a second threat once again puts the reserve at risk.
Mongabay Latam sent questions to the Ministry of Public Works, but until the publication of this note, the agency did not provide answers.
The threat of mining
Despite the difficulties, the Las Chinchillas National Reserve has managed to successfully overcome the threats that threaten the endangered rodent. In fact, “the creation of the wilderness area, plus other measures (greater appreciation of the species, hunting ban, environmental legislation and definition of the species as a Natural Monument, among others), have allowed chinchilla populations to regenerate,” he says. Jorge Luis Silva, provincial head of Conaf Choapa.
Nevertheless, the reserve faces a new threat today. This is the El Espino project, which, located just 10 kilometers from the reserve, seeks to extract up to 51 million tons of copper per year. This company project pucobrewhich already has an environmental permit and according to its page Web is waiting for sectoral permits to start operating, “it will have a direct effect on the species,” explains Silva.
Despite the fact that science has widely demonstrated the importance of protected areas having a buffer zone, that is, with a surrounding area that functions as a protection belt, since it reduces the negative influences of human activities, protected areas protected in Chile do not have this figure of protection.
One of the threats of the El Espino project, say the experts consulted, is that it will intensify the impacts that had already been recognized with the construction of the highway, since traffic will increase considerably. As published in the Environmental Assessment Serviceis considered a maximum increase of 103 trips per day, corresponding to trucks, buses and light vehicles, including seven trips a day with dangerous substances.
Furthermore, as recognized by the Environment Effect investigationthe construction of the project will affect an area of 49.66 hectares of Native Preservation Forest being the endemic species Monttea chilensis Y Porlieria chilensis (guayacán) the most affected.
To compensate for this damage, the company proposed a plant repopulation program and to mitigate the impacts on fauna, it assured that a plan to rescue and relocate species in a state of conservation will be carried out.
All these mitigation measures were finally approved by Conaf, however, it should be noted that the regional management of said body specified in the environmental impact study that “it is not clear the ecosystemic gain that the compensation proposal presented by the owner will produce” .
Until the publication of this report and despite different contact attempts, representatives of the Pucobre company did not respond to Mongabay Latam.
* Main image: Chilean chinchilla. Photo: Conaf.
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