25 chinchillas stand between Gold Fields and $7bn worth of Chilean gold

South African bullion producer Gold Fields (TSX, NYSE: GFI) could soon access 3.5 million ounces of extractable gold in northern Chile – if an ongoing operation to capture and relocate a population of critically endangered chinchillas living around the project proves successful.

Hunted for centuries for their thick, soft pelt, chinchillas are now only found in the wild in parts of Chile and are protected by law. Chief executive Nick Holland acknowledged in 2017 the animals were among the main obstacles facing the company at the Salares Norte asset.

Gold Fields’ EIA for the Salares Norte gold-silver project includes relocating the endangered rodents about 4km away from the site

Gold Fields’ environmental license for the gold-silver project depended, partly, on finding a way to move chinchillas.

It’s not the first time endangered species protections have complicated permitting processes.

Chilean authorities approved the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Salares Norte, in December last year, after Gold Fields committed to relocating the rodents about 4km away from the site.

In February, the board decided to build the mine, which will be completed in 2024. In August, Gold Fields’ kicked off the conservation operation, which is scheduled to last nine months.

The company has invested $400,000 to date in the project, including various population surveys using satellite technology to ensure chinchilla survival.

Gold Fields has also started setting up the mine camp and some key infrastructure.

“We use a trap that is baited inside and closes when the chinchilla enters,” Luis Ortega, a Chilean environmental manager who oversees the rodent removal, told Undark.org. “The entire process must be carried out for each of the nine rocky areas where the animals will be removed during the construction of the mine.”

Multiple rescue attempts

The government-approved process contemplates a minimum of two attempts to capture specimens on each rocky area, each lasting 10 days. If the task is unsuccessful, the operation must be suspended for 20 days before it is tried again, to minimize disturbance.

According to Gold Fields’ figures, the Salares Norte project’ mineral reserves are estimated to be 3.5 million ounces of gold and 39 million ounces of silver, equating to gold equivalent reserves of 4.1 million ounces.

At current prices of  $1,923 per gold ounce, the asset is worth almost $7 billion.

Chinchillas preventing Gold Fields from accessing 3.5 million gold ounces in Chile
Exploration camp at the Salares Norte project in Chile. (Image courtesy of Gold Fields.)

The project has a current 10-year life-of-mine, or 11.5 years if inferred resources are considered. Construction was originally scheduled to start in the last quarter of 2020, with first production in Q1 2023. Coronavirus-related restrictions, however, have affected the timeline.

Chile’s gold production peaked in 2000 at 54.1 tonnes, data from the country’s copper commission, Cochilco, shows. The nation, the No.1 copper producer and second largest lithium producer after Australia, currently ranks 25th in the world when it comes to the yellow metal, according to the World Gold Council.