Save the Wild Chinchillas

Peruvian Ecology of Endangered Chinchillas and Their Habitat

Chinchilla Habitat - A wild chinchilla shown in it's native habitat of The Andes Mountain Range. Roland Seitre.

Peru is one of the world’s most megadiverse countries in the world, consisting of a wide range of animals including chinchillas. Various animal facts include that 75% of its endangered animal species are protected, and of its 460 mammal species 46 are threatened. 

Chinchilla  is the common name for the genus name for “squirrel”, a South American rodent. They  originated in Peru, in the Andes mountains and highlands. They generally inhabit the Andean foothills of northern Chile and southern Bolivia, specifically the Antofagasta and Atacama regions in Chile and Potosi in Bolivia (Valldares et al 2018). The thick fur can be turned into coats, blankets, pillows, or clothes. There are two species that are still thriving today, chinchilla brevicaudata (short-tailed chinchilla) and chinchilla lanigera (long-tailed chinchilla). Overall, their life span in the wild is 8-10 years, but domesticated ones can live even longer, to 15-20 years.

In this blog post, I will touch on the history, the habitat, the domestication and farming of chinchillas. This blog post is not written with the intention of promoting the farming of chinchillas, or the fur trade. In fact, it is greatly frowned upon and the animals that are farmed with the intention of being used as fur coats or blankets are generally not well cared for or raised in suitable environments.

The demand for the short-tailed chinchillas' fur has lead to the animals becoming endangered.

Endangered Chinchillas

While they look very fluffy and furry, chinchillas are being trapped, farmed, and hunted down for their fur, and are becoming extinct. They are also hunted by wild foxes, owls, snakes and hawks.

The Chincha people used to hunt them for their fur. The only known herds existed in the 18th century. Commercial hunting began in 1838, and was viewed as a widespread activity in northern Chile (Jimenez (1996). The number of pelts being exported rose steadily, and by 1900-1909, the number of skins became over half a million per year.

In 1910, a treaty was signed between Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Peru in order to protect the chinchillas, which included the banning of chinchilla hunting, and eradicating the commercialization of chinchillas. Sadly, this led to a further decline of the remaining chinchilla populations and this law was not correctly installed until 1929.

The number of chinchillas that were being hunted declined and by 1917, chinchillas were considered as economically extinct. In 1929, a new chinchilla hunting ban was installed, but it increased the desire for new pelts. According to Jimenez, the last record of a short-tailed chinchilla sighting was recorded in 1929, but chinchillas were rediscovered in 1973”  (1996). With regards to the long-tailed chinchilla, it was last seen in 1953, but then it was rediscovered in 1975 (Jimenez 1996).

Currently, it is very rare to see them in the wild but they are scattered in different areas of north-central Chile. Overall, they are considered as “critically endangered and require continued protection by law and further research of their genetics and ecology” (Valladares 2018:51).

Chinchillas in the Rocks

Chinchilla Habitat and Diet


In their native habitat in Peru, chinchillas prefer to live in rocky, cool climates. Elevations can range from 3000 to 5000 meters (9840 to 16,400 feet), and chinchillas need to live at heights this high due to their natural ability to jump up to 5 feet – 1.5 meters. Their long legs allow them to leap this high. The long-tailed chinchilla is crespuscular or nocturnal, and the short-tailed is normally nocturnal (Honeycutt 20040.

They reside in burrows or crevices in the rocks. Atacama populations include a stream with boulders, medium sized caves and sparse scrub vegetation (55). Any temperatures that spike above 80 degrees cause them to overheat. Their climate consists of rugged areas. The climate can be rocky, sandy and is covered with some thorn shrubs, scattered cati and herbs.


Most chinchillas feed on grass, seeds, and insects, and are known to eat more than 20 plant species consisting of herbs and grasses (Honeycutt 2004). When droughts occur and there is no water to drink in the wild, they will sip on succulents in the summer. As they eat, they typically hold the food in one paw and bite off of it.

Chinchilla climbing log

Chinchilla Breeding and Mating

Both long-tailed and short-tailed chinchillas “form colonies and are highly vocal, with females displaying high levels of aggression and are more dominant than males” (Honeycutt 2004). These animals are known to be very sociable and need consistent social interaction. Groups can include up to 100 chinchillas and spread over several hectares (100). Most interestingly, the large herds also held guard against potential predators. Some herds adopt a “look-out chinchilla” who stays alert for potential threats as their colonies go out to feed and look for food.

Female chinchillas mate for life, while male chinchillas can have many partners. On average, short-tailed chinchillas will have about 1-3 liters in the breeding season. Females are ready to have offspring as early as 5.5 months. They mate biannually and mate for life. On average, a female chinchilla will have one kit (baby chinchilla per litter), but sometimes they will have two. The gestation period occurs for 138 days.

Mothers that take care of their young show their aggression by spitting or barking at intruders. However, male chinchillas will also help rear kits too. If a female is incapable of nursing, another female may come to her aid and feed the young. The kits are born with fur, teeth, and open eyes and generally weigh about 35 grams, and are able to eat plants immediately. Weaning occurs at about 6 weeks.

This blog is not written with the intention of promoting the farming of chinchillas or the fur trade. In fact, it is greatly frowned upon and the animals that are farmed with the intention of being used as a fur coat are not well-cared for. Overall, I hope to expose a very exotic, animal that should be preserved and admired, not to be hunted or skinned for commercial reasons.

Chinchillas and the Gold Mine

Chinchillas and the Gold Mine

Currently, locals try to maintain chinchilla populations as much as possible. As an endangered species, a chinchilla colony sat on top of 3.5 million oz of extractable gold in October of 2020. Mining poses a significant threat to chinchillas and their habitat.

The mining field had an 860 million dollar construction site and rests on top of 25 chinchillas. The conservation operation aimed to trap and move 25 chinchillas to a more suitable living area about two and a half miles away. Once the chinchillas were relocated, they were kept in a protected enclosure for several weeks.

The short-tailed chinchillas were considered easy prey by the construction workers as most fur hunters (who deal with these animals daily) can scoop the rodents, sometimes even by hand or tail. The traps, spanning over several rocky areas, automatically closed when the chinchilla entered and they were baited with a mix of grass, almonds, nutshells and vanilla extract. It was decided that if the trap were to fail, they would have to continue to capture them or the gold would not be allowed to be extracted.

The experiences were disruptive for the chinchillas as they are rather sociable animals. According to, researchers were invited from the University of Chile and the University of La Serena to study the chinchillas. The researchers took genetic samples from the rodents in order to help map their relationships with other populations. The overall cost of the chinchilla project included 400,000 dollars in expenses, population surveys and satellite technology.

Massive Cat Sized Chinchilla found in Machu Pichu

New Chinchilla Arboreal Rat Discovered

In a famous archaeological site, scientists found a living, cat-sized mammal, arboreal chinchilla rat. The animal was first discovered in 400-year-old Incan pottery dug up by Hiram Bingham in 1912 and showed up in Peru.

In 2009, a park ranger found a living version of this same animal near the same archaeological site, which revealed that this animal actually never went extinct, even though field work was conducted there very frequently. The species is found in Machu Picchu National Park and the historic sanctuary of Machu Picchu. However, the animal is still considered endangered as its natural habitat is being destroyed. Large amounts of native forests have been damaged due to cattle grazing. This arboreal chinchilla only has a very narrow area where it can survive. Overall, more and more endangered animals are being discovered in Peru and it is up to us to continue to advocate for these rare species.

Chinchilla Habitat - Mathias Chapman with one of his original chinchillas.

Domesticated Chinchillas

How did chinchillas become domesticated?

Ever wonder how chinchillas that originated in Peru came to America? A man named Mathias Chapman created a herd of his own chinchillas and is responsible for bringing chinchillas over to America. He is famous for setting up the first fur farming ranch.

In 1923, he took the chinchillas from their natural habitat for transportation to America. He and over 20 men went to collect them as they were almost extinct. It took over three years to catch just 11 chinchillas and he believed this was enough to start to breed them. In order to avoid complications with the chinchillas perishing during transportation or getting sick, he made sure the animals had their own food, as natural as possible. He also wanted them to be kept out of the sunlight so they didn’t die and overheat. Most importantly, he tried to collect vegetation from its natural habitat to bring with him to California. As he gathered the chinchillas, they travelled very cautiously and slowly, so the animals were not freaked out by the long descent down the Andes Mountains.

Unlike the Spaniards, Chapman made sure the chinchillas survived the journey. When they embarked on a steamer, they made sure that they were kept cool with wet towels and ice-packs over their cage. Only one chinchilla perished during the journey to America, but two more were born that same year.

In this same year, ranches were only set up in the United States, Canada and Europe. Chinchillas were not allowed to be sold or used for fur in the United Kingdom.

Contemporary Chinchillas

With time, it is important to note that chinchillas have become domesticated and are kept in large cages to support their love for jumping and climbing. They are deemed to be smarter than most household pets, including rabbits and small mammals. Over time, chinchilla fur colors have mutated, and can even appear as black, white and mixed. Each fur color ends with a black tip, no matter what the color is.

Domesticated chinchillas are known to consume hay and pellets, and just like the wild ones, they are still very social animals. To raise a chinchilla properly, one must provide it with a large metal cage, constant access to water and food, lots of ledges and places to climb, chew toys to keep teeth from growing, and keep it away from electrical outlets and dangerous areas where the chinchilla can hurt itself. The house must remain under 80 degrees Fahrenheit or it will overheat. Chinchillas bathe in volcanic ash, so a dust bath needs to be provided daily. Interestingly, chinchillas who are domesticated or kept in captivity develop fur chewing behaviors (Gonzalez et al 2018). It is said that this new trait has evolved over time and that has helped them to cope with isolation and captivity.

Northern viscacha adult and young Cordillera in wild life


It is important to note that there are several other animals that look closely similar to chinchillas in Peru. Visachas are a member of the Chinchillidae family but are actually larger and are quite comparable to rabbits. There are five different types of visachas that live in different parts of Peru called: Mountain, Northern, Southern, Plains and Wolffsohn’s Viscacha.

They have grey or brown colored pelts with bushy tails and long, furry ears. They live in the Peruvian Andes Mountains as well. In comparison to chinchillas, they love to reside in high-altitude climates with plenty of places to leap and jump and maintain a similar diet. They are also hunted for their fur.

Chinchillas in the Wild


In a diverse environment like Peru, animal populations interact with the habitat in unique ways. New policy actions and initiatives are appearing in order to raise better awareness about the impact of “consumption on nature, protecting local environments, promoting local economies and restoring damaged areas” ( Currently, contemporary chinchilla populations are small and isolated, and these mammalian populations truly risk extinction just from fur hunters alone. Chinchilla habitats have to be maintained in a certain way with the right resources or they will not be able to survive. Overall, I hope that one can learn about the lifestyle and ecology of an exotic animal, which should be preserved and admired and not be hunted or skinned for commercial reasons.

Domesticated Chinchilla Sits in Brown Metal Cage
Source: Author, Photograph 2019


Honeycutt, R. L. 2004. Viscachas and chinchillas. Pages 377 to 384 in B. Grzimek, D. G. Kleiman, V. Geist, and M. C. McDade (eds.), Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, volume 16. Detroit: Thomson-Gale. ISBN 0787657921.

JE Jimenez, Extirpation and current status of wild chinchillas Chinchilla lanigera and C. brevicaudata: Biological Conservation [BIOL. CONSERV.], vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 1-6, 1996.

Pablo Valladares F, Ángel E Spotorno, Arturo Cortes M, Carlos Zuleta R, Chinchilla

chinchilla (Rodentia: Chinchillidae), Mammalian Species, Volume 50, Issue 960, 20 August 2018, Pages 51–58,

González, C., Yáñez, J. M., & Tadich, T. (2018). Determination of the Genetic Component of Fur-Chewing in Chinchillas (Chinchilla lanigera) and Its Economic Impact. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI8(9), 144.




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