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Recovery and Management in Chile

In the 16th century, the total vicuña population of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina  is estimated to have exceeded several million (Hoffmann et al. 1983; Cueto et al. 1985).  During the following period of European colonization, however, vicuña numbers began to decline.  This decline became even more acute during the 20th century, as a result of excessive commercial hunting with guns and dogs.  By the early 1950's, vicuña numbers had fallen to around 400,000 and a census in the late 1960s showed that there were only 5,000 to 10,000 vicuñas left in Perú, and fewer than 2,000 vicuñas remaining in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina (Rabinovics et al. 1991). In 1970, when the national population was estimated to be as few as 500 animals, the Chilean Forestry Service (CONAF) initiated a long-term program for vicuña conservation in Chile (Cattan and Glade 1989). This program involved the creation of protected areas in the northern Chilean altiplano. The program’s primary objectives were to stop poaching, to halt the illegal traffic of fiber, and to apply the Vicuña Convention (Torres 1992).

Soon after the Vicuña Convention was implemented, the first ranger guards were stationed within vicuña habitat (1970-1975). Since then, yearly counts have allowed close monitoring of population recovery (Galaz, 1998; Rodriguez and Nuñez 1987). Initially, a single National Park was created in the Parinacota Province to protect the vicuña and other species. More recently, this park has been subdivided into three different management areas (Galaz 1998; Rojas & Galaz 1998). During the 1980s, the protection phase was supplemented by research into the basic ecology and behavior of vicuñas in the wild (Cattan & Glade 1989; Glade 1982; Glade & Cattan 1987) and reproductive physiology in captivity (Schwarzenberger et al. 1995; Urquieta et al. 1994; Urquieta and Rojas 1990).

Successful population recovery has begun to shift the emphasis away from conservation towards the sustainable use of this species (Rabinovich et al. 1985; Wheeler & Hoces 1997; Macdonald & Tattersall 1996). Several studies on the quality of vicuña fiber and potential ways to distribute the benefits of sustainable use of the vicuña have been conducted. The results of these studies led to a strategic plan for the sustainable use of the vicuña (CONAF 1991). This plan anticipated that the vicuña would be used sustainably by local communities by the early 1990s (CONAF 1991; Torres 1992). However, this sustainable use phase was delayed because legal aspects pertaining to the distribution of benefits to local communities could not be agreed upon (Gonzalez et al. 1991; Rojas & Galaz 1998).

In 1995, a new phase of research began in which the main goal was to study the physiological response of the species to management operations (Bonacic 1996). New aspects of sustainability were investigated, relating to the efficiency of capture methods, the effects of shearing and the consequences of exploitation on the population structure (Bonacic 2000).

A successful sustainable use program will depend on effective communication and co-operation between different scientific disciplines (e.g. ecology, animal behavior, economics, marketing). Also, because genetic research has now revealed that the alpaca is descended from the vicuña, research findings from the study of either of these two camelids can be used to suggest avenues of management for the other.

Modern use of vicuña fiber1

The vicuña, along with other South American camelids, is one member of the group of animals that produce rare fibers. Other examples include goats and rabbits which produce mohair, cashmere and angora. Internationally, vicuña fiber has been well-known in the textile industry for more than 100 years. For example, at the end of the 19th century, one of the most important mills in Scotland developed the use of the vicuña fiber and specialized in vicuña fiber processing and commercialization. During the first half of the 20th century, vicuña fiber was well established on the international market.

The American Wool Handbook (1948), described an average diameter of 13.2 microns (range 6-25 microns) for 1100 fibers measured (Koford 1957; Torres 1987). The vicuña has a double-coated fleece and is one of the most valuable and highly prized sources of animal fiber (Russel 1997). The coarse fibers (i.e. guard hairs) are produced from primary skin follicles and the fine fibre (i.e. undercoat) from secondary follicles. The undercoat fibers are the commercially important part of the fleece, but require mechanical removal from the guard hair (i.e. dehairing). Vicuña fiber is highly prized because its very fine and soft and has a high dehaired yield (Carpio 1991; Hoffmann et al. 1983).

Torres (1987) estimated that a total yield of 250 g of fiber could be obtained from Vicugna vicugna mensalis by shearing every two years. If an estimated life span of 8 years in the wild is considered, a total of 1 kilo of fiber could potentially be harvested from an adult vicuña. Berger, (1963) stated that a range of between 180 to 335 g of fiber could be obtained from vicuñas every two years, and also reported a maximum yield of 335 g. The difference in reported yields for vicuñas could be a consequence of different shearing methods, as well as individual differences.

Wheller (1995) described Vicugna vicugna mensalis as having an average coat fiber length of 3.28 cm in adult animals, with the long chest hair frequently reaching up to 20 cm. The fleece fiber diameter in Vicugna vicugna mensalis is 12.52 + 1.52 microns (Carpio, 1991; Hoffmann et al., 1983). Wheller (1995) pointed out that no similar statistics are available for Vicugna vicugna vicugna. The Chilean National Forest Corporation (CONAF 1991) reported 186.5 g of fleece from each vicuña (V.v. vicugna) shorn in the Chilean puna (CONAF, 1991). This shearing was done by a method similar to that used on sheep.

A description of fiber quality from Chilean vicuñas is presented in Table 1. These animals were sampled at Las Vicuñas Natural Reserve (19o S, 69 30' W). had a mean fiber diameter of 15.13 + 1.01 microns, with no significant differences between sex and age groups. The lack of difference between ages and sexes suggests that the fleece of the vicuña is highly homogeneous, especially in terms of diameter of fine fibers. The percentage of medulla was low (only 1.9% + 2.89) and similarly showed no significant difference due to sex and age. Hair diameter showed a mean value of 57.4 microns, with a maximum and minimum hair diameter of 107 microns and 33 microns respectively. Hair fibers were present as a low percentage of the fleece (1.9 % + 1.33), again, with no observable sex or age differences.

Fleece composition by body region was studied in juvenile males by Bonacic (1996). A qualitative evaluation of the fiber showed extraordinary softness and luster, although sand and seeds gave some “blurry appearance” to the fleece from the lowest parts of the body. The fleece region had small amounts of the coarser hair, easily detectable because of a darker brown color and high diameter. The fleece is compact and the fiber fineness makes it difficult to part the fibers in the fleece. The whole fleece was uniform for fiber fineness, staple length, character (crimp, staple configuration, handle) and density of fibers within the fleece (Bonacic, 1996). However, this level of uniformity changes dramatically towards the front neck region and lower parts of the body. The fleece of the tail is mainly hair and is very short, hence of very limited commercial value.

Table 2 summarizes the main characteristics of the fleece from different body regions of the vicuña (Bonacic, 1996). The fleece showed a mean total weight of 263 + 23.1 g (n = 8 animals).  The fleece region accounted for 68%, the belly 11% and only 23% of the fleece weight was obtained from parts of the body with poor fleece quality (front neck, legs and tail) (Bas et al., 1995).

Table 3 compares the fiber quality of vicuñas with other South American camelids (Bonacic, 1996; Bas et al., 1995). Vicuña fleece shows the smallest undercoat fiber diameter and lowest percentage of medullated fiber. This means that vicuña fleece has the finest fiber of all the South American camelid species – a fact that is highly significant in terms of the commercial value of the fiber for making textiles. However, in comparison with the alpaca, fleece weight, staple length and presence of hair are less favourable characteristics of the vicuña fleece. Fiber characteristics of vicuñas from Chile are similar to those from Perú, confirming that the vicuña fleece is the finest fiber of South American camelids.

Response of vicuñas to management

The fleece of the vicuña is the result of selection pressures exerted by a highly variable environment, that includes large daily temperature fluctuations, intense solar radiation during the day, and high winds (Wilson 1989) (CONAF, 1991; INIA, 1989). The thick coat of the vicuña provides insulation and reduces exposure to solar radiation and drying, enabling the animal to adapt to rapid changes of temperature and wind (Koford 1957). In addition, the long cream-colored fur on the chest serves to protect the animal from the wind and cushions the animal's body when it is resting on the ground (Koford 1957).

The stress of management by humans, particularly shearing, may affect the welfare and health of vicuñas by increasing exposure to wind and low overnight temperatures in the extreme climate of the puna ecosystem. Vicuñas may therefore become susceptible to wind-chill and hypothermia. Thermoregulation in camelids is accomplished by evaporative cooling (sweating) via the "thermal window". This “thermal window” is a relatively hairless area on the ventral abdomen (the axillary space), and also on the inner thighs (Baunmann et al. 1975; Rosenmann & Morrison 1963). Obviously, shearing takes away from the vicuña an attribute that has survival value, and thus is likely to be disadvantageous. Nevertheless, it is not obvious just how disadvantageous shearing is, and how its negative impacts can best be mitigated by alternative protocols (Bonacic & Macdonald 2003).

Management of the vicuña involves capture, handling and shearing wild individuals (Figure 3). Capture and transport combined cause changes in blood glucose, packed cell volume, cortisol and neutrophil:lymphocyte ratios within 4-6 hours following capture (Bonacic & Macdonald 2003). Creatin kinase is also affected by capture and transport, showing a peak plasma level 24 hours after capture, followed by a peak plasma level in aspartate aminotransferase four days after capture and transport. However, after 12 days in captivity, vicuñas show physiological parameters close to expected baseline values for the species (Table 4 from Bonacic et al, 2003).

Future directions in vicuña management

Two main approaches for sustainable use of South American wild camelids have been discussed (Bonacic in: Gonzalez et al. 2000). The first approach stresses the need to keep vicuñas under a wild management regime for effective conservation of the species. The second approach promotes the farming of vicuñas as a new economic activity with tremendous potential not only for local communities in the altiplano, but also for private businesses elsewhere.

Currently, there is no agreement between the nations of the Vicuña Convention about the future direction the program should take. For example, Argentina promotes vicuña farming with a model based on 30 years of captive farming of vicuña (at the Abrapampa experimental station) (Rebuffi 1993). The goal has been to develop an extensive farming system to produce fiber and to promote small captive farming units throughout the Argentine altiplano (Service 1999).

Perú favours privatized ownership of vicuñas (Hoces 1999) and fencing for an extensive ranching system (Martinez 1996). Wild vicuñas are enclosed in extensive plots (1,000 ha) and rounded up and sheared periodically (Hoces 1999; Lichtenstein et al. submitted; Wheeler and Reitz 1987). Bolivia is starting to implement a sustainable use program within local communities (Oryx 1999). The policy in Chile treads the middle ground, choosing to be cautious until more detailed studies have been carried out to elucidate the long term effects that any management strategy may have on the vicuña population. To these ends, Chile continues a long-term research programme to study aspects of vicuña population dynamics, and the effects of sustainable exploitation and captive herds in extensive systems coupled with efficient anti-poaching control to promote conservation of the wild populations (Service 1999).

Regardless of the methods employed to manage the exploitation of vicuña fiber, a major potential problem is the expected profit. A current international price of US$300-800/kilo (dehaired) has been suggested as suitable value for the fiber (Bas et al. 1995; Hoces 1998). However, what seems highly profitable in the short term should be assessed in the context of a high initial investment and low productivity. The whole investment appears to be high risk (G. Lichtenstein, personal communication). Any proposed move from the sustainable use of wild populations towards the captive farming of vicuña seems to increase the costs and risks to the investor, and the likelihood of any short-term profit is decreased.

Another important factor to consider is that any potential market for the fiber may be restricted and small (Bas et al., 1995). Fashion driven markets can be highly volatile over the short term, so fluctuations in demand for the fiber may be considerable. Currently, only one European company has succeeded in buying fiber from Perú and the price has been falling since the first public auction (Hoces, 1999).

Final Remarks

The vicuña is a species well adapted to survive in a low productive ecosystem with an extremely variable climate. Behavioral and ecological adaptations enable the vicuña to thrive in this harsh environment. Its fine fleece is a unique evolutionary adaptation that protects it from the extreme weather, but has condemned it to be persecuted and hunted since pre-Hispanic times. Today, after an international program of conservation, vicuñas are recovering from the brink of extinction.

The vicuña program is now entering a critical stage and the future direction the program takes could lead to conflicts with the program's original objectives. The strong trend for interfering with natural populations, whether by fencing or captive-raising seems incompatible with the initial criteria of sustainable use. In ecological terms, a herding system with minimal intervention in the wild population would be the best plan to secure continued sustainable use of the species. This plan also minimizes unnecessary stress to vicuñas due to shearing.

In both cases, poaching remains one of the major threats to vicuna conservation. The lack of efficient law enforcement in a vast and harsh environment is becoming a negative factor towards the aim of sustainable use of the species. It is easier and faster to shoot a vicuna with a .22 caliber rifle than to wait for population recovery within a wildlife management system or take care of captive vicuñas after fiber collection.

To date, no captive farming regime has been shown to produce vicuña fiber profitably. While the future envisaged for the vicuña seems glowing, from eco-tourism to ranching and farming, its final fate lies in the hands of human society, both the local (original communities) and international markets. If poaching control is not effective, many years of protection and research will be in vain, and a project that was once considered a model for sustainable use will be endangered.

Footnotes

1. Co-author for this section: Hilary Redden, Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, Aberdeen, Scotland.

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Information about this Review

This review is also available in the following languages:

Spanish     Portuguese

Photograph at top of page: a young vicuña with baby alpacas in the background.  Vicuñas often forage near domestic herds of llamas, alpacas and even sheep during the day, mainly in meadows (also called bofedales).  Such close distance grazing is common on the altiplano, with little disturbance caused to the vicuñas.  Shepherds typically move their domestic herds from corrals to the meadows for grazing during midday.   Sometimes vicuñas are herded back to corrals with llamas and alpacas, and orphan vicuñas are raised by farmers.  Photo by Jay Joslin (USA).

The author is:  Dr. Cristian Bonacic (PhD in Zoology, Oxford University).

The proper citation is:

Bonacic C  2011  Vicuña Ecology and Management. ECOLOGY.INFO 27.

If you are aware of any important scientific publications about the vicuña that were omitted from this review, or have other suggestions for improving it, please contact the author at his e-mail address: 

bona {at} uc.cl

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