By a hair’s breadth, Peru’s vicuña avoids extinction... but now what?


Dressed in green fatigues and carrying rifles, Javier Rojas and two colleagues scramble up a rocky hillside and peer across the highlands.

These are not troops scouting for the Shining Path guerrillas of Peru’s recent past. Rather, they’re guards from the town of San Cristóbal, and they’re on the lookout for poachers who might kill the community’s vicuñas.

Known here as “walking gold,” the vicuña, a wild South American camelid related to the domesticated alpaca and llama, has been treasured since Incan times. The reason is its butter-soft fleece, or fiber, which is finer than cashmere and provides remarkable insulation.

Pushed near extinction by poachers three decades ago, Peru’s vicuñas have rebounded thanks to the Vicuña Conservation and Rational Utilization Project. The government program allows highland communities to make sustainable use of vicuña fiber, giving them a stake in protecting wild herds.

But the initiative has its controversial side. It has been plagued by charges of corruption and mismanagement. And some researchers fear it may threaten the wild vicuña by creating pressure to domesticate the animal.

Peru is home to nearly half the world’s vicuñas. Much of the rest inhabit Bolivia and Argentina. During the 1960s, poaching had left Peru with 5,000 to 10,000 vicuñas, or 1% of the population thought to exist at the time of the Spanish conquest. Then, in 1967, the government established the Pampa Galeras National Reserve in the department of Ayacucho.

For years, protection consisted mainly of state-paid guards patrolling the reserve. While this helped, much vicuña territory was beyond the guards’ reach. And there was the Shining Path. In 1989, the reserve was closed after the guerrilla group attacked its headquarters.

The reserve reopened in several years with a new strategy: Highland residents would be able to harvest fiber from live-sheared vicuñas and protect the herds themselves. Begun in 1991, the program now includes 800 communities. The towns hire guards and oversee vicuña management under the slogan, “A vicuña sheared is a vicuña saved.”

Today, nearly 800 highland towns participate. Every two years, they organize a “chaccu,” a vicuña round-up and shearing festival that dates from the days of the Incas.

Early on, Peru’s market approach ran afoul of a ban on the sale of vicuña products under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But after repeated lobbying by Peru, the ban was lifted in 1994.

That year, an organization representing highland towns, the National Society of Vicuña Breeders, signed an agreement with a consortium of Peruvian and Italian companies to export vicuña fiber. In the first year, the consortium paid $300 per kilo of unprocessed fiber, a windfall for the communities.

CITES stipulated all vicuña fiber exported from Peru for finishing in Italy must carry the name Vicuñandes, certifying it came legally from live-shorn animals. So far, Peru has held two auctions for vicuña-fiber export rights.

And the vicuña population has gained ground, from 31,000 in 1993 to an estimated 120,000 based on the most recent census, in 1997. The number of animals killed by poachers decreased from 20,000 in 1989 to fewer than 300 last year, the government says.

“Even looking at regional hotspots where poaching has been a real problem, the numbers indicate very positive results,” says Jane Wheeler, a biologist with Peru’s San Marcos University who has studied the camelid family for over 25 years.

Highland communities have benefited, too, in 1998 earning nearly $1.7 million from the sale of raw fiber as well as commissions on the sale of finished products. Some 70% of each community’s earnings is spent on public works, while 30% goes to infrastructure and personnel associated with vicuña management.

The town of Andamarca, for instance, has used its funds to help pay for radio equipment, a communal television and a system of fences to help steer wild herds to shearing pens.

“It’s an alternative resource for poor highland communities where traditional livestock and agricultural activities are not feasible due to geography,” says Domingo Hoces of the National Council of South American Camelids (CONACS), a unit of the Agriculture Ministry that advises towns on vicuña management.

Despite its success, the program also has drawn criticism. CONACS and the National Society of Vicuña Breeders have been accused of failing to pay towns the fiber income they’re due. Communities complain that with vicuña suits retailing for up to $10,000 in Italy, the $308 per kilo they’re paid by the International Vicuña Consortium (IVC) is far too low.

Dante Loyola, commercial manager for Grupo Inca, a Peruvian company in the IVC, rejects the charge. “Communities don’t understand the costs involved in weaving the finished cloth and then paying a respectable designer to fashion a finished product,” he says.

Expectations that vicuña fiber could fetch as much as $900 a kilo never materialized, and raw-fiber prices remain at 1994 levels.

Peruvian officials blame the economic crisis in Asia, a prime outlet for vicuña fiber. And despite the lifting of the CITES ban, the United States still bars the import and sale of vicuña fiber or cloth. Peru is now consulting with U.S. authorities to ease those restrictions.

To boost vicuña-fiber income, communities are studying the possibility of fencing in large portions of countryside to facilitate vicuña roundups. There is even talk of domesticating the animal to breed for fiber quantity.

For Wheeler, such talk is vexing. For the last three years she has studied DNA samples from vicuñas throughout Peru. Her original goal was to see if vicuñas were experiencing a “genetic bottleneck” caused by their scant numbers in the 60s. And her initial results suggest vicuñas have retained genetic diversity.

But her studies also unexpectedly strengthened evidence that the alpaca is the domesticated version of the vicuña, she says.

“[Domestication] is truly dangerous for many reasons,” she says. “The most obvious is that the vicuña has already been domesticated: The domestic form of the vicuña is the alpaca. If people start selecting males and inbreeding to increase the amount of fiber, they’re going to wind up with an alpaca, and they’re going to destroy the quality of the fiber of the vicuña.”

- Rachel Hays

Patricia Cubas
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 445-2477
Domingo Hoces
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 428-4200
Dante Loyola
Commercial Manager
Inca Alpaca
Arequipa, Peru
Tel: +(515) 425-1025
Callo Wharton
General Manager
National Society of Vicuna Breeders
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 428-5235
Jane Wheeler
Universidad de San Marcos
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 435-3348