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History of the Chinchilla




The Chinchilla has been around for a long time and scientists believe they are direct descendants of the pre-historic Megamys. They were Chinchilla like animals but much larger then the present day Chinchilla and were found in the Permian deposits in Argentina. As of the writing of this presentation I have not been able to track down information or a sketch of what they believe the Megamy would look like.

Chinchillas have always been in the same territory and never migrated to any other area, this could be explained by natural barriers and natural enemies keeping them in their home territory. Their home range is defined as a portion of the Andes Mountains that runs along the western coast of South America. It is about six hundred miles long and two hundred miles wide. This area covers parts of the dry slopes of four different countries’ that are Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This mountainous area has a desert like appearance with very little rainfall and little vegetation.

It is not clearly known when the Chinchilla was first used for its fur. But it is safe to say that long before the Inca Empire that the Spanish encountered, the Chinchilla fur was in use. Inca’s started as a small warlike tribe in Peru sometime around 1100AD. For three hundred years they remained small only fighting with their neighbours.

A tribe of Indians, the Chinchas, had hunted and trapped this tiny animal using all parts of it, subsisting on the meat and using the skins to sleep on. They also wore robes woven from the plucked fur. It is still a practice in modern-day Andean countries to eat guinea pig. One can only assume that these Chincha Indians feasted frequently on chinchillas, as well.

During the 15th century, the Chinchas were conquered by the mighty Inca Indians. Under Inca rule, the Chinchas were forbidden to wear the Chinchilla robes. They immediately became the fur of the Inca Royalty and adorned only those Incas who were of noble birth.

In the 16th century the Incas were, in turn, conquered by the Spaniards who called this important little animal Chinchilla after the Chinchas (Chinchilla literally means “Little Chincha”).

The Spaniards demanded great tributes for their queen.

A story is told of one emissary who, seeking to win favour, sent his queen a strong box filled with jewels and gold plate. For protection, he wrapped the box in a Chinchilla robe that he had taken from an Inca Chief. The messenger, however, who was dispatched to the queen stole the jewels and gold plate and sent the queen only the box into which he had stuffed the Chinchilla robe. He then fled. So delighted was the queen with this exquisite fur that she had the messenger found and brought to court. Instead of torture and death as he expected, the messenger was knighted as a token of her appreciation for such a rare and exquisite fur, more beautiful and luxurious than any she had ever seen before.

Thus was Chinchilla introduced to the civilized world ­ every woman in Spain longed for fur such as the queen wore. Never had they seen a fur so soft, so light, of such delicate blue­gray tones, with such subtle, almost iridescent shading. It was a never ending source of fascination and envy to all who were fortunate enough to see Chinchilla.

So great was the demand that the Spaniards in South America sought for Chinchilla with the same zeal that they searched for gold and precious stones. The demand continued to grow faster than the supply as news of this rare and lovely fur spread over Europe.

The mining ventures called the British to the Andes and, longing for their native sport, they sent to England for red foxes which they turned loose in the Chinchilla's native habitat. On weekends, the English hunted the fox, and every day and night during the week the fox hunted the Chinchilla.

The London Zoological Garden received their first Chinchilla as early as 1829. Writings from a Dr. Pechuel-Lösche editor of the mammal section of Brehm’s Tierleben 1893 edition states that observation of the Chinchilla has drawn to a conclusion they can live without drinking liquids. Also, he found that of any rodent they are very suitable for domestication, as the Zoo had bred the Chinchilla repeatedly. Frederico Alberrt, who was the director of the zoological and botanical research station in Santiago, Chile in 1900, had asked the government at that time to protect the Chinchilla and develop a management program, but his efforts were in vain. No one was worried about the Chinchilla because there were still an abundant number of wild pelts being offered.

He reports in his first article on Chinchillas “La Chinchilla” about Fransico Irrazaval in Santiago who had received a pair of Chinchillas from the province of Coquimbo in 1895. The first offspring was born that same year in October. Every year after they would have two litters a year one in March the other in October. Unfortunately, because of an epidemic outbreak in the summer of 1898, all of his 13 Chinchillas died within a 2-month period.

Between the demand for the fur and the predator fox, the Chinchilla was reduced to near extinction by the turn of the century.

In 1918, the governments of Chile, Peru and Bolivia outlawed the exportation of pelts and prohibited trapping ­ but the harm was already done. The only factor that saved what was left of the wild Chinchilla at that time was it became uneconomical to hunt the few remaining Chinchillas left in the wild. In 1910 Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru under a mutual agreement simultaneously decreed laws, which prohibited the hunting, trapping, and killing of the Chinchilla and prohibited the selling of their pelts.

The first large-scale attempts at domesticated breeding of the Chinchilla in Chile began in 1920. Several young men petitioned the government for permission to trap fifty pairs of Chinchillas and breed them in enclosed shelters. The restoration of the animal and the re-establishment of the industry for the country were the basis of the petition. As a result of this petition a Decree Law was passed which modified the prohibitive trapping decree of 1910. It authorized the Director General of Hunting and Fishing to issue individual case licenses on approved applications to establish domesticated Chinchilla breeding pens and the trapping of a stated number of wild Chinchilla to stock them. They imposed strict regulations on the sale of animals and their pelts and left it to the Director of fishing and hunting to monitor. All animals lost or stolen were to be reported to the local police in 24 hours and to certify the natural deaths of animals by the closest notary public. Also, the breeder had to register all animals trapped and bred and to submit an inventory every six months.

The site they chose was an abandoned copper mine located in the “Puna de Los Andes”. The quota of 50 animals was trapped with the aid of a few Indians over a four-month period. The first year the production was almost nil, as the animals were slow in becoming accustomed to captivity.

These animals that were caught were of the Lanigera species of Chinchilla. A second application was granted in 1921 and among these were some of the Brevicaudata species of Chinchilla. These were found a considerable distance from the breeding farm over the Bolivian border and had to be smuggled in. The Brevicaudata were found to adapt very quickly to captivity and its fur was much finer than the Lanigera. Later the Brevicaudata were found further north within the Chilean border. By the end of the second year the pioneers were in possession of nearly 300 hundred animals.

Then, in 1923 the pioneers were forced to sell out because of lack of funds to operate. Up to this time the authorities refused permission to sell the animals for export. Finally an agreement was reached and the original owners were allowed to liquidate.

Between 1923 and 1930 the breeding farm changed hands several times. The government set the price on live animals and limited the sales to newly licensed breeders within the country. The price set for the sale of the animals proved to be too low to carry on breeding on the farm, which had no other means of support. These low prices beckoned many amateurs into the breeding business, most of whom started out with 5 to 10 pairs.

This is exactly what the authorities wanted because it fell in with their conservation plan. Unfortunately, this plan failed and it is estimated that these amateurs lost several thousand Chinchillas over a ten-year period. History has shown us that get rich quick schemes usually fail with only a few people making money in these schemes. This disastrous blunder in amateur breeding brought about the cancellation of all breeding permits except for a few which were located in the northern provinces. Most importantly, it brought about a change in sales regulations. The government realized that the few remaining breeders had to be provided with a source of income for their work. As the total numbers of Chinchillas in captivity had not yet reached a figure to allow pelting for the fur trade, a limited number of licenses were granted for the exportation of live animals.

At that time, Mathias F. Chapman, a mining engineer in Chile, became acquainted with this priceless fur­bearer. One day an Indian trapper brought one of the precious animals to the mining camp. Chapman, realizing the inestimable worth of Chinchilla, and being shocked at the destruction of the Chinchilla population, became fascinated with the idea of trapping enough animals alive so that he might bring them to the United States and raise them in captivity as the one and only means of actually saving the species.

His associates knew that the Chinchilla was practically extinct in the wilds and that all efforts to domesticate them had failed, so when Chapman actually set about his plan to rescue the Chinchilla, they thought him mad. He hired several Indian trappers and promised them much gold for every "blue" Chinchilla they brought to him alive.

At last, after four years with as many as 23 Indians covering the high peaks of the Andes mountains, a small number of these precious animals were accumulated. Eleven of these animals reached the United States and they can truly be called the "founding fathers" of today's Chinchilla population.

Since 1923 when the first eleven animals were imported to the United States, the Chinchilla industry has grown from a wild promotional game to a sound, profitable business.

Between 1936 and 1946 one hundred and thirty-two Chinchillas were sold to the United States and forty to Norway that were known of by the government. As of the early fifties there were four well established breeding farms in Chile all located in the northern province of Antofagasta about 1.600 kilometres north of Santiago and all run by experienced breeders. The combined total count of these farms is well above 2.000 Chinchillas. It is believed that once each farm can maintain at least 1.000 breeding females the exportation of the Chinchillas might cease if the farmers can make a living off the fur. Many European countries had well-established Chinchilla herds by the fifties. A few of the countries were Norway, West Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Soviet Union and Italy.

As late as the early 1950's, breeding pairs sold for thousands of dollars. The true value of Chinchilla could not be set because the pelt market had not been established. The term quality meant very little.

But even during this speculative period, men with practical vision could see a great future for the Chinchilla industry. These men recognized the potential market for Chinchilla pelts. They formed organizations for creating a market for Chinchilla pelts.

They first adopted standards to upgrade the quality of pelts. An advertising and promotion plan was soon put into effect proclaiming these quality pelts. Breeders thus found raising Chinchilla a profitable venture.

Today the Chinchilla industry is thriving and growing daily.


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