Vicuna: the Smallest Camel, Coming Back from Endangerment in South America
Vicuña on the Rise
Declared endangered in 1974, the vicuña is the smallest member of the camel family. Trademarked by their fur, the vicuña coat can cost as much as 300 dollars per kilo due to its rarity and texture. Located exclusively in South America, vicuñas live in the grasslands and plains of the mountain regions at altitudes of at least 4,000 meters. Their coats are found in reddish browns, ochre, and light cinnamon with downy white wool stretching down their neck and chest. Humpless, slim, and long-necked, they are one of two members of the wild llama species, partnering the guanaco. Their small head is wedge shaped, characterized by large curious eyes, tall triangular ears, and a cleft upper lip, but their most distinguishing feature is their incisors. With enamel on only one side, their teeth have evolved to fit the harsh terrain of the Andes, allowing them to roam high elevations to enjoy the grasses.
The vicuña wool reaches the length of shearing every three years, producing a small amount of soft, warm fur that is knit together and used for blankets, coats, scarves, and other accessories. In order to prevent poaching, vicuñas are annually grouped and sheared, all wool longer than 2.5 cm cut. Chacu is a brilliant system sanctioned by Peru, the largest home to vicuñas, to prevent illegal activity. Here, the Peruvian government guarantees that the animal was captured, sheared alive, and released back into the wilderness. They then label and log the items created from the wool. Its profits are then used to support the community.
The vicuña tribe is diurnal, or active by day. Primarily located in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, and Chile, vicuñas divide their day into two categories, grazing and sleeping. In the morning they are led down the hill by their leader, staying within 160 feet of him at all times. Tribes each have their own territory, averaging a 7-30 hectare radius (one hectare equals 100 acres) which has been marked by dung to ward off other animals. Only changes in season and lack of food will prompt the male leader to relocate his tribe. The vicuña live in families of 5-20, led by an adult male appointed to protect all women and children. Dominant, this male has a specialized call to warn his tribe of impending danger and he also stands alone as leader of the group, fighting any other male interested in joining his tribe by spitting and kicking. Currently, the vicuña lifespan is 20 years, 25 maximum when bred in captivity.
From the period of the Spanish Conquest to 1974, the vicuñas were mercilessly scavenged as hunters greatly profited by furs, blankets, and clothes created from their fine wool. This caused the vicuña to become endangered, its population dropping to only 6,000 as people stalked the animal. In an effort to replenish them, conservation organizations such as the Servico Foresta y de Caza, Wild Wildlife Fund, U.S. Peace Corps, and the Nature Conservancy took a stand, joining forces to save the vicuña from going extinct. They alerted game wardens of the impending danger, bringing Peru’s vicuña population up to 75,000 through the dedication and hard work of the Game Warden Academy, a school composed of 8 members from Peru and 6 from Bolivia specifically trained to stop the act of poaching. Their commitment has brought the vicuña population to 125,000, allowing Peru, Chili, Argentina, and Bolivia to lower their status from endangered to threatened, and return to the highly profitable acts of bartering to their routine. Chili and Peru have also established protected national parks to protect them. Ecuador, however, still declares the animal endangered.