Chinchillas have been around for a very long time.
There have been animals similar to chinchillas found in prehistoric fossil deposits in the Argentinean Andes. These animals were called the Megamys who were a genus of fossil hysricomorphic rodents from the Eocene of South America. They were from the family Octodontidae because of the shape of their molars which has a number 8 shape.
They evololved into the chinchilla that we know today staying native to the corner of South America hemmed in by the mountains of the Andes in the countries of Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia.
There are many theories as to where their name may have derived from. The most popular theory is that the name comes from the Chinchas who were a native people of South America. These people were known to use chinchilla fur for clothing.
The word may have also come from Spanish word ‘chinch’ which means ‘bug’. However, another theory is that it came from the languages of the Quechua or Aymara people in that region of South America.
As the Chincha people were absorbed into the Inca empire, the Inca started to use Chinchilla fur particularly for use by their rulers and nobles. At the same time they forbade the Chincha people from continuing to use it.
As the Inca’s continued to grow as a tribe during the middle ages from 1400 they popularity of chinchilla fur grew with them.
The arrival of the Spanish invaders
When the Spanish invaded the new world, chinchilla fur spread beyond the Incas to be studied by western scientists who later discovered the chinchilla fur at use.
Indeed a chinchilla was noted to have been kept at the London Zoological Garden in 1829.
The chinchilla was also mentioned in an 1893 German Zoology book which gives mention to the chinchilla’s apparent ability to survive without fluid intake.
The prize of chinchilla fur.
As they grew more popular, they became more prized as animals known for its softness and their ability for their fur to make wonderful coats. A full coat of chinchilla fur is called a pelt.
These chinchilla fur coats were highly sought after and it took roughly 150 chinchilla pelts to make one coat.
It is thought that seven million pelts where exported from Chile between 1840 and 1916 alone and experts believe that as much as twenty one million chinchillas were slaughtered during that time.
Putting a stop to chinchilla slaughter
From around 1900, efforts were made to stop the slaughter of chinchillas by the government of Chile and in 1910 Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Argentina all banned the hunting, killing of Chinchillas in the wild and the sale of Chinchilla pelts.
However, by then the species was all but extinct.
The rebirth of the Chinchilla
In 1920 Chile passed a law which allowed for the trapping of domesticated chinchilla breeding pens in an abandoned copper mine. In this pen 50 pairs of Chinchilla lanigera were used but this experiment was not successful.
A second effort was made in 1921 involving Chinchilla Brevicaudata in Bolivia and produced more than 300 chinchillas during two years which was farm more successful.
There were other attempts at breeding them but these failed as chinchilla prices prvoed to be too low for breeders to recoup their costs and make a profit.
Mining engineer Mathias Chapman and his companions searched for wild chinchillas between the years 1918 and 1923 and were said to have only found 11 during that time.
These 11 were brought to the USA where they were bred.
From these animals most if not all chinchillas in the USA were bred.
In the 1930s, a few live-chinchilla export licences were granted to allow the breeders a chance at making a living. The export licences turned the tide for the more experienced breeders who were finally able to have a go at making this business.
By the beginning of the 1950s the four largest Chilean breeders produced more than 2000 breeders produced more than 2000 chinchillas. More than 130 chinchillas were exported to the US between 1936 and 1946.
The growth of Chinchillas as pets
Since the world war two ended there were chinchilla breeders found in Italy, USSR, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany. At first they loved for their fur but they soon began prized for the fact that they made fantastic pets as well particularly in the 1960s. The qualities of keeping themselves parasite free, being inexpensive to care for and their long life made them highly attractive to people.
There were an estimated 231000 in 2002 and chinchillas remain a protected animal in many different countries with specialist nature reserves set up to give them protection.