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History of Chinchillas (cont.)

When the slaughter first began, their skins sold for a peso and a half, or about fifteen cents each, and, even then at that low figure, many fur buyers lost money on the investment. The higher the altitude and the dryer and colder the climate, the better the fur. At last and inevitably the chinchillas became very scarce. When it was too late, the Chilean government passed a law prohibiting the trapping of chinchillas. In 1899, the Cinchilla King, Richard Glick, of Leipzig, Germany, handled 78,500 pelts, and more than 300,000 pelts in 1900 and 1901. It is estimated that over a million chinchillas were trapped and their pelts shipped to Europe during this time.


Mathias F. Chapman was working as a mining engineer for Anaconda Copper in Chile in 1918. One day a local native Chilean Indian brought a chinchilla he had captured to Chapman’s camp in a tin can to sell. Chapman bought the chinchilla and became more and more interested in this little animal. From his experiences with this chinchilla he developed a plan to obtain more of these animals and transport them to the United States. Originally, his thought was to breed chinchillas as pets, but later he conceived the idea of raising chinchillas for the fur market. In 1919, Mr. Chapman set about capturing as many chinchillas as possible so that he could establish a breeding population. The search for chinchillas was not an easy one. When his 23 trappers brought in fewer chinchillas than expected, Chapman stepped up his plans and many field trips were taken. Living conditions were primative. Supplies had to be transported long distances.


The search which took from 1919 to 1922, covered immense areas including trips into Peru. It took three years for Chapman to acquire just eleven chinchillas worthy of breeding. Of these eleven chinchillas, it is known that only three were females. At this time, in 1922, Chapman began the process of gradually working his way down from the mountains with his precious collection. The trek from his home at over 10,000 feet to sea level was taken in several stages to give the animals a chance to adjust to the change in altitude. The chinchillas traveled in large wooden cages that Chapman had specially built. They were shaded from the direct sun and, when necessary, were cooled with ice. Thanks to Chapman’s care, all eleven chinchillas made it down the mountain.


Also during this time, Chapman was working on getting permission to bring his chinchillas to the United States. At first, he was denied permission to take the chinchillas out of Chile. However, his persistence paid off and the Chilean government finally granted permission to export the chinchillas in 1923. There are now about 3,000 herds in the US and Europe today, and all of them have descendants of those 11 Chinchillas that Chapman brought back.

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