Vicugna vicugna

Distribution: Vicuñas occur over an area of approximately 250,000 km2 in the Puna and the High Andean ecosystems of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile from 3,200 to nearly 5,000 meters above sea level. There is also an isolated population of approximately 2,000 individuals in Ecuador, which were donated by Peru, Chile and Bolivia.

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Subspecies: Two subspecies have been described geographically: the Southern Vicugna vicugna vicugna Molina, 1782 and the Northern (approximately up to 18° S) V.v. mensalis (Thomas, 1917). As in the guanaco, the differentiation between subspecies is based primarily on variation in size and coat color.

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History of use: Vicuña fibre has been used by Andean people since pre-Colombian times, when the capture of vicuñas was regulated. During the Inca reign in Peru, there were large numbers of vicuñas efficiently handled by the Incas during round-ups, which were referred to as chakus. There was a death penalty for poaching and the chaku occurred by royal decree every three to four years. The meat from slaughtered vicuñas was distributed among the inhabitants to make charqui and the fibre was for the Inca nobility. When the Spaniards arrived in South America there were approximately 2 million vicuñas in Peru. After the Spanish Conquest, indiscriminate hunting of vicuñas with firearms, and the large-scale exportation of skins to Europe resulted in a dramatic population decline. In the mid-twentieth century, the entire vicuña population was estimated at approximately 10,000 animals. This situation was reversed with the signing of international conservation agreements as well as intensive national and regional conservation efforts.

In 1969, Bolivia and Peru first signed the Convention for Vicuña Conservation, later Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador joined the agreement. Protectionist measures of the Convention and its ban on marketing of wool, hair, fur and other products were reinforced by the implementation of the ban on international marketing of fibre by the Convention on International trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1975, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), in June 1970.

After a successful first stage of absolute protection, a second stage started with the involvement of local communities in the national programmes for conservation and management of the species. In 1979 the Convention for the Conservation and Management of Vicuña, was signed, which promoted the economic exploitation of the species “for the benefit of the Andean people” (Article 1, Convention for the Conservation and Management of the Vicuña, 1979).

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Population: The Vicuña Convention established the need to undertake periodic censuses in the five countries where vicuñas were found. The regularity of censuses and the methodology (total counts to distance sampling) used to carry them out varies between countries. Compared to other wildlife species, information on vicuña populations and their distribution in South America represents one of the most comprehensive databases. However, it is important to emphasize that given the disparity in population estimation methodologies, data from different countries are not readily comparable.

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In 2008, vicuñas were re-categorised under the Red List as a species of “Least Concern”: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22956/0

Ecology: The vicuna’s social system is based upon resource defense polygyny in which females are attracted to a favorable forage site defended by a territorial male. The primary social units are Family Groups, Male Groups, and Solo Territorial Males. Average family group size is very stable among populations and between subspecies (one male, three to four females and one to two offspring). While there are variations on the system depending upon population density, forage distribution and abundance, the classic vicuna territorial system is a Feeding Territory occupied and defended year-round by the resident male. The male may also defend a separate Sleeping Territory. In the areas used by family groups, many wallows (revolcaderos) and communal dung piles (bosteaderos) are present. Depending on the environment, the family group may show daily patterns of activities between the hill sides where they sleep to lower areas where they feed.

Males also do not typically reproduce unless they possess a Feeding Territory. Feeding Territories form the basis of the vicuna’s social system, where feeding, reproduction, and raising of young during their first year of like take place. When males are 2-4 years age they begin leaving the Male Group as Solo Males in search of an unoccupied or poorly defended site to establish a territory. Young females are commonly the new members of a recently established territory, although on occasion the male may leave his territory and attempt to steal females from other male’s territory. Non-reproductive males form Male Groups socially and physically separate from territorial males with Family Groups. Vicuna populations are sedentary; no migratory populations have been recorded to date.

Females within a family group maintain close distances to each other, and grazing is their primary activity. These females have offspring that require one year of gestation and eight months of lactation. Therefore, the energy costs that females are subjected to make them eat almost continuously. Offspring are born during the late summer and birth coincides with the period of maximum primary productivity of the steppe ecosystem. A few days later females reproduce again. Young are born well developed, and, as a strategy to avoid predation, they are very active and follow their mother’s very closely. The primary predators are the Puma (Puma concolor), the Andean fox (Pseudalopex culpaeus), and domestic dogs (Canis familiaris).

CITES Classification:

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The Appendix II of CITES permits the international trade of wool cloth, and other manufactured products (luxury and knitted handicrafts) from the shearing of live vicuñas.

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Management systems:

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Wild Management consists of the temporary capture of individuals via chakus for shearing. Since this type of management is based on maintaining vicuñas in their natural environment, it has the potential to contribute to the habitat and species conservation, while promoting local peoples’ positive attitudes towards vicuña conservation.

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During the Convention of the Vicuña (La Paz, 2007), both Argentina and Chile stated their desire to stop promoting institutionally captive breeding.

Current Threats for conservation:

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  • Directs Threats
    a. Poaching.
    b. Habitat degradation and fragmentation.
    c. Competition with domestic livestock.
    d. Installation of corrals on a large scale.
    e. Promotion of Pacovicuña (hybrid resulting from crossing alpaca and vicuña), and
    commercialisation of its fiber.

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  • Indirect threats
    a. Institutional weakness.
    b. Lack of effective protected areas.
    c. Lack of adequate legislation to regulate utilization and ownership of the resource.
    d. Lack of information about the effects of management plans at individual and population levels.
    e. Lack of sufficient incentives for local people to conserve the species.
    f. Existence of an important market for illegally sourced fiber.
    g. Large-scale mining and infrastructure projects.