Business Maverick


Rodents and Rocks – Gold Fields gets green light to resume Chile chinchilla relocation

Rodents and Rocks – Gold Fields gets green light to resume Chile chinchilla relocation
Gold Fields in late 2020 launched an operation to relocate a colony of about 25 highly endangered chinchillas, a species almost hunted to extinction for its highly coveted fur. (Photo: Courtesy of Luis Ortega)

Two and a half years after the regulator stopped the initial operation, JSE-listed Gold Fields has been given the green light to resume the relocation of a colony of endangered chinchillas near its Salares Norte mine project high in the Chilean Andes.

Gold Fields’ Operation Chinchilla is about to get under way again, two and half years after the deaths of two of the endangered rodents brought an unusual wildlife relocation project to a halt.

JSE-listed Gold Fields confirmed in response to Daily Maverick queries that the Chilean authorities have given the relocation the green light to resume. Permission to do so comes just months before the company expects first production from its $1-billion Salares Norte project in the Chilean Andes.

The original construction of the mine did not hinge on Operation Chinchilla’s success, but failure to accommodate the animals would have meant some fine-tuning to the original plan. 

“Gold Fields Limited can confirm that Chile’s environmental regulator – SMA – on 29 June 2023 approved the Compliance Programme submitted by Gold Fields’ Salares Norte project on 20 December 2021. This was in response to the charges formulated by the regulator due to the incidents that occurred in November 2020 when two chinchillas died shortly after being relocated. Under this programme, the relocation activities can recommence from September 2023 onwards,” the company said in response to our queries. 

Gold Fields late in 2020 launched an operation to relocate a colony of about 25 highly endangered chinchillas, a species that was almost hunted to extinction for its highly coveted fur. 

The critters’ rocky home at altitudes of 3,900 metres and higher lay near Gold Fields’ Salares Norte gold project. Relocating them safely was a requirement of the company’s environmental permit. 

The task did not seem arduous – the rabbit-sized animals are hardly menacing. The plan involved luring the critters into live traps with bait and then relocating them to enclosures to allow them to adapt to their new surroundings before being released into the wild only a few kilometres from their original home range. 

Gold Fields hopeful ‘Operation Chinchilla’ can restart soon at Chilean mine project

Chinchilla in Machu Picchu, Peru. (Photo: Flickr)

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Chinchillas and the Gold Mine

But the initial attempt came unstuck when two of the first four animals earmarked for relocation died.  

Read more here: A High-Stakes Chinchilla Relocation Effort Stalls 

This correspondent previously reported that one of the two surviving chinchillas – both have been successfully relocated – had suffered a serious leg injury but recovered. That animal was flown to Santiago for treatment, underscoring how seriously Gold Fields’ executives took its condition. Not many rodents get that kind of attention in the C-suite.   

“… we have collaborated with the authorities to resolve the sanction proceedings and 18 months ago provided a comprehensive plan taking learnings from the initial relocation efforts into account to safely relocate the remaining estimated chinchillas,” Gold Fields said. 

‘This plan has now been accepted by the regulator and reaffirms our commitment to the protection, conservation and increasing knowledge of the chinchilla. Measures approved include extended monitoring of the animals in their habitat in the operational areas, more resources to detect chinchillas in the area, making more natural food available to them during the relocation and raising the number of experts implementing the rescue and relocation plan.”

So, among other things, more experts have been brought in to avoid a repeat of the 2020 fiasco. Such expertise is probably as rare as a short-tailed chinchilla. 

And the mine is set to deliver its first gold at some point in the final three months of this year. 

“The resumption of the relocation programme, which Salares Norte is currently preparing for, means that the mining plan for Salares Norte can proceed as scheduled. Salares Norte is set for first production in Q4 2023,” Gold Fields said. 

Gold Fields spokesperson Sven Lunsche provided more details. 

“If we weren’t able to relocate chinchillas from some areas, we would have had to adjust the mining plan schedule accordingly and mine other areas until we received permission. That is no longer required,” he told Daily Maverick.

Gold Fields will certainly be hopeful that this time around, the relocation goes without a hitch. The project has stirred controversy and criticism from animal rights activists, especially in Chile. In fairness to Gold Fields, it has been striving to do right by the rodents and maintains it is advancing scientific knowledge about the species in the process. 

And Salares Norte is critical to Gold Fields’ plans to maintain and grow its production profile. It is a high-grade ore body with 3.5 million ounces of extractable gold, over 42 million ounces of silver and almost 400 million pounds of copper. 

The mine will be open pit and mechanised, which is firmly in line with Gold Fields’ strategy since it spun off its labour-intensive, conventional gold mines in South Africa a decade ago into Sibanye Gold (now Sibanye-Stillwater).

So, a lot is at stake in the second phase of Operation Chinchilla. Animal welfare activists may still smell a rat, but a successful relocation will be a win for rodents and humans. DM

Absa OBP

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