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Home > Field Reports > Chinchilla Research in Bolivia

Chinchilla Research in Bolivia

by Maria Copa Alvaro
July 25, 2009

Conservation History of Short-Tailed Chinchillas
The short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla brevicaudata) is historically found in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Perú. It was heavily exploited and eventually believed to be extinct in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the short-haired chinchilla as “Critically Engangered.” Current populations appear to be limited to the Jujuy province of Argentina and in the Llullaillaco National Park in northern Chile.

In Bolivia, the chinchilla pelt was known to be extremely valuable, which made the taking of chinchilla an important part of the economy. Although no data exist about the actual number of exported pelts—legal or illegal—an 1884 story by Peruvian writer Modesto Basadre’s gives a sense of the magnitude of the exploitation:

My father had a lot of relations with the people of Carangas and Lipez Province; and he was a big exporter of chinchilla pelts…[one] year he exported more than three thousands dozen pelts.

Furthermore, various conservation laws regarding chinchillas show that the species has been endangered for more than a century. The decrease in population, and the believed extinction in the wild, were not avoided even though conservation laws were first enforced early in the 19th century.

About the Project: Searching for Chinchillas in Bolivia
The last evidence of wild chinchillas inside Bolivia comes from 1939, in the Chaquecamata region. However, no search has been conducted since to locate any remaining populations. According to recent researchers, though, there is a possibility that small populations persist in the country. I will work to develop an understanding of the chinchilla’s historic distribution in the region, and will visit those areas to access any current wild short-tailed chinchilla colonies.

The objectives of my study are to:
  • interview people that live in the same areas as the chinchilla once did;
  • explore the Alto-Andina region of southern Bolivia and search for chinchilla signs (feces, hair and bathing areas;
  • generate a map of the chinchillas that will show past and current distribution;
  • identify places to sample for a second stage of research, which includes possible live trapping with capture and release techniques.

Study Area
Based on historic accounts, I have identified three areas for sampling:
  • Bolivia’s Potosi Department, including Eduardo Avaroa National Park, Llica National Park, Porco Province, San Cristóbal Locality (Sud Lipez Province), Cerro Tapilla (Nor Lipez Province)
  • Oruro Department, including Serrania Savaya, Sajama National Park and Carangas Province
  • La Paz Department, including San Martín de Iquiaca.

See this Wikipedia article for a map of Bolivia's departments.

Study Methodology
In selected communities, local people will be interviewed about the presence of chinchillas and the characteristics of other species that people may confuse with chinchillas. These species include viscachas (Lagidium viscacia) and chinchilla rats (Abrocoma cinerea). Data will be collected based on both individual responses and responses across a particular community. We will interview older livestock herders as they are particularly aware of the landscape and wildlife in their areas.

For our “community interviews,” we will use several maps showing chinchilla habitat. We will ask people to mark the sites where they saw chinchillas, and sites where they believe chinchilla may be found now. The purpose of this exercise is to gain the community’s ideas regarding the possible causes for the chinchilla’s disappearance and regarding the possibility of finding any remaining wild short-tailed chinchillas. We will also use the community meetings as an opportunity to teach about the species' conservation.

Finally, we will ask several additional questions at the community meetings: Do you want that your children to live in the same landscape that surrounds you today? Or would you prefer the one that surrounded you in the past? Do you want your children to have access to the same resources that you use today? How can we restore the past landscape?

Searching for Chinchilla Colonies
We will search for signs of wild chinchillas in the areas most likely to host them. Searchable areas will be divided into 100 meter x 100 meter quadrants. A minimum of two quadrants will be chosen based on the nature of nearby rock outcroppings, as these outcroppings are where the chinchillas are like to make burrows. The surface of each quadrant will be examined for possible bathing areas, feces, hair and potential predators’ feces.

With the help of the mammalian section of the Bolivian Collection of Fauna (also known as Colección Boliviana de Fauna, or CBF), we will compare the hair samples with a reference catalogue to identify samples taken in the field.

Feces samples from the area’s predators (Andean Cat, Pampas Cat, Fox, Puma, Zorrino and Hurón) will be searched for cranium parts and hair from chinchillas. Any chinchilla hair found will be compared with the reference catalogue, and any cranium parts will be scanned to make comparisons with the craniums of chinchillas located by the CBF.

Analyzing Chinchilla Tracks
In the sample quadrants discussed above, we will verify short-tailed chinchilla presence by capturing their tracks in trapping grids. A smokecard will be placed for three consecutive days at each grid intersection in order to “capture” chinchilla footprints. To increase the probability of obtaining chinchilla tracks, we will use rolled oats placed in the middle of the cards as bait.

Characterizing Habitats
In order to characterize the potential chinchilla habitats in the study, we will make five linear samples of 20 meters in each quadrant. To calculate total vegetation cover and the species’ frequency and abundance, we will use the line intercept method. In each grid described earlier, we will analyzed five transects, each measuring 20 meters in length. Using a 20 meter length of rope and a measuring tape, we will record all ground cover along that line.

Once that data is collected, it will be analyzed in a spreadsheet program. We will documented the dominant and second most dominant plant species, and also the percent of ground cover for a five-meter radius. We will then classify habitat areas based on plant type (“shrubs and trees,” “small herb,” “large herb,” “small rocks,” and so on) and also on the overall quality of cover (“sparse,” “typical” or “dense”).

What We Hope to Learn
  • Understand, according to community knowledge, the distribution of chinchillas before the last chinchilla record, which dates back to 1939.
  • What places have the potential to support the presence of chinchilla.
  • Evidence of other small mammals.
  • Collect and identify hair samples from known species in the field.
  • Gather descriptions of the habitats in the places most likely to support chinchillas.
  • Share knowledge and memories about the presence of chinchillas in the past.

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mugshotAbout the author:

Maria Copa Alvaro studied Biology as an undergraduate in Bolivia and Biological Science as a postgraduate student in Mexico. While in Mexico, she studied the impacts of Hurricane Emily and Hurricane Wilma on populations of endangered pygmy raccoons.

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