Wellbeing of 25 chinchillas weighs on Gold Fields access to 3.5 million gold ounces

The short-tailed and long-tailed chinchillas are listed as “endangered” by both Chile and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Chile’s environmental watchdog is “weeks away” of issuing a decision on whether Gold Fields (TSX, NYSE: GFI) harmed a group of 25 short-tailed chinchillas by attempting to move them so it can access 3.5 million ounces of extractable gold in the country’s north.

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.

The South African gold producer, with the assistance of Chilean authorities, launched an operation last year to relocate the colony of endangered rodents living around its under-construction $860 million mine.

Gold Fields, which is building the $860 million Salares Norte mine, has been working with Chilean authorities since 2020 to relocate the colony of endangered rodents

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

Hunted for centuries for their thick, soft pelt, they are now only found in the wild in parts of Chile and are protected by law.

The operation was going according to plan until the Superintendency of the Environment (SMA) ordered in November a halt, after one of the rodents suffered a broken leg and two others died.

Holland suggested the government’s relocation protocols had contributed to the poor outcomes. “They said to us that we had to house them in fairly confined areas. We felt that those areas were too small, but we followed the protocol, and unfortunately two died,” Holland said in a February interview with digital magazine Undark.

The SMA confirmed to MINING.COM on Wednesday that a probe into the incident could result in hefty fines or suspension of the mine’s environmental permit, approved in 2019.

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

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

The company has also set up the mine camp and some key infrastructure.

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  $1,809 per gold ounce, the asset is worth roughly $6.3 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 Salares del Norte 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, but coronavirus-related restrictions have affected the timeline.

Gold Fields expects to complete construction by the end of 2022 and begin production in Q1 2023.