Vicuna Facts

The Vicuna is one of two non-domesticated camelids, the other being the guanaco. The Vicuna, however, retains one of the richest and noblest of histories, including one of the earliest attempts by man to maintain a non domesticated animal with a harvestable product through artificial selection or perhaps natural selection aided by man. Darwin after having visited Peru in 1868 wrote, "Vicuna management is one of the most curious cases of selection by semi-civilized people, or indeed by any people. The Incas sheared the wild guanaco and Vicuna; the old males and females were killed, and the others set at liberty; the young animals selected from the most beautiful and strong were given their freedom. Here then, we have selection by man aiding natural selection."

Of course, the attribute that makes the Vicuna so unique and the focus of such royal attention is this animal's most amazing fiber. The very soft and small diameter fiber (around 12 microns) is said to be the finest animal fiber in the world. Indeed, the Incas considered it so valuable that only the rulers were permitted to wear it and possession of it was punished by death to those outside the aristocracy. So valuable is the fiber that even in modern times a jacket made of Vicuna fiber started a bit of a scandal in the Truman Administration. Today, although Vicuna fiber is once again available commercially it is still an object of illicit activity.

The Vicuna is found in four South American countries: Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. They are divided into sub-species, depending on geographical origin and can be differentiated by such characteristics as color patterns and bib size. Prior to the Spanish invasions of the area Vicuna numbers were plentiful. The Spaniards were not merciful to the noble animal, however. They found it easier to shoot them to collect the fiber than to catch and release them. It did not take long to decimate the population. The slaughter continued into the early to mid 20th century as firearms became more available to the masses. In addition, the introduction of other livestock, including sheep, into the Vicuna ranges increased competition for survival.

The result was less than 2000 animals surviving in the 1960's. The various governments and world organizations finally decided to step into action. The Vicuna convention was started in the late 60's and local protection was initiated. Peru and Bolivia originally signed on with Chile and Argentina following later. In the late 70's the five states representing the geographical home of the Vicuna signed an agreement to protect, conserve and utilize the Vicuna in a sustainable manner. Currently, there are over 200,000 animals, the bulk being in Peru. The respective governments have allowed the local communities to organize the "Chaku" or the rounding up of the Vicuna in a controlled manner, shear them and than release them. Research continues on the best methods for these programs to reduce the stress and possible health related problems to the animals as well as the best ways to help the locals whose lands the animals graze, profit from the sale of the fiber. There is some work progressing to captive raise the Vicuna in the countries of origin. Much work remains to be done to see if such programs are practical, both economically as well as practically. The Vicuna is truly a wild animal and attempts at domestication could prove difficult. There has been some research into crossing the Vicuna with the domesticated alpaca. This plan may be a better way to "domesticate" Vicuna bloodlines and improve fiber quality in the alpaca. The hybrid, often called the Pacuna, has been shown to handle captivity well, maintain fertility and in fact, greatly improve the fiber quality of alpacas. Currently, there is a research-breeding herd of Pacuna in the United States in Findlay.

Vicuna fiber is now available once again on the world market, although some countries still consider the Vicuña endangered and thus any product from them are illegal for importation. As the Vicuna is removed from the most endangered lists the fiber products will be more available. Current prices for the rare material made from the fiber ranges from $1800 to $3000 per yard. Typically a man's scarf will fetch $800. It is the countries` wish that the prized and pricey fiber will enable continued research into the conservation of the species as well as a source of needed income for the natives.

The Vicuna, on the brink of extinction just four decades ago is now making resurgence. Its unique fiber and ability to thrive in the rugged alto plano of South America make this magnificent animal truly a world wonder and deserving of this second chance at survival. The gene pool that produces the noblest of the noble world fibers should be preserved for all future generations to enjoy and to this end research must continue in South America to maintain the pure herds as well as research in the rest of the world to preserve and improve fiber qualities.