• Long-tailed chinchillas (Chinchilla lanigera) are small rodents, with thick, soft fur; large eyes and ears; and a bushy tail. Chinchillas are attractive animals, which has led to their popularity as pets. Over the years, they have been selectively bred commercially, and today millions are kept as pets around the world.

    Despite a large number of commercially bred chinchillas, the long-tailed chinchilla is considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because its numbers in the wild are low and continue to decline. In its native habitat in the mountains of Northern Chile, there are only two known colonies of these chinchillas remaining. 

    Long-tailed chinchillas live in cold, arid regions of the Chilean mountains, between 3,000 and 5,000 meters (9,800 and 16,000 feet) in elevation. The fur of chinchillas is well-suited for its cold habitat. Incredibly dense, chinchilla fur can have up to 50 individual hairs in a single follicle. The softness and density of chinchilla fur made its pelt highly prized. In the early 1900s, chinchilla hunting became widespread, and they were hunted almost to extinction for their valuable pelts. At the height of their popularity, coats made of chinchilla fur could be worth up to $100,000. It would take around 100 pelts to make one fur coat.

    Today, laws protect long-tailed chinchillas, and neither the animals nor their fur can be traded internationally. However, the laws against hunting can be hard to enforce in the remote areas where these animals are found, so poaching does occur. A newer threat to the chinchillas comes from mining activity, which threatens their habitat. 

    1. The long-tailed chinchilla was hunted almost to extinction because its pelt was valuable to humans. What are some other species that are endangered because of their economic value?

      Answers will vary. Some common examples include elephants, whose tusks are used for ivory; rhinos, whose horns are used in Chinese medicine; and tigers, who are valued both for their pelts and for various body parts that are used in Chinese medicine.

    2. Why are long-tailed chinchillas considered endangered if there are so many found as pets?

      These chinchillas are considered endangered because of their low numbers in their native habitat. Though the commercially bred chinchillas are considered the same species, they differ from their wild counterparts largely because they have been selectively bred for certain traits that make them more desirable as pets.

    3. Coats and other clothing made from fur fell out of favor in the 1990s, but they have recently made a fashion comeback, particularly in China and Russia. Would you wear clothing made from fur? Would it make a difference if that fur came from animals raised for that purpose rather than hunted in the wild? Why or why not?

      Answers will vary. Some animals, such as chinchillas, fox, and mink, are raised specifically for their fur. Some students might distinguish between fur made from these animals rather than fur hunted in the wild.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    arid Adjective

    dry.

    commercial Adjective

    having to do with the buying and selling of goods and services.

    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    follicle Noun

    small, protective sac, gland, or cluster of cells. In humans, hair grows from hair follicles, while teeth develop from dental follicles.