South America's Iconic Vicuñas

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Visitors to part of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru (where it's the national animal and is even on the country's coat of arms) may come across this quintessential South American mammal, a camelid related to guanacos, llamas, and alpacas (which are descended from vicuñas) The smallest of the camelids, vicuñas stand about three feet tall at the shoulder; weigh between 70 and 150 pounds; and have long necks and legs as well as relatively small heads with long pointed ears.

Basically undomesticatable because they don't reproduce in captivity, vicuñas mostly (but not exclusively) live at altitudes of 10,500 to 15,700 feet, grazing on grassy valley plains close to water sources and spending nights on the slopes - where of course temperatures are often freezing, but they're protected by thick coats of fur -often light colored, with backs tending toward reddish brown or tan in color and sides and underbellies white or cream in hue - which trap layers of warm air close to their bodies. This fur grows quite slowly, and every three years local communities are allowed to capture and shear them (under strict regulations ensuring among other things) for their prized fleece. Soft, comfortable, warm, and durable, this is the most expensive natural fiber on the market; it fetches up to 5,000USD per pound thanks not only to those qualities but also to its relatively scarcity; a vicuña-wool coat can cost up to 20,000USD.

 

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Protections Enacted

By the mid-1960s, humans had hunted and poached vicuñas and some of their relatives nearly to extinction - around 6,000 animals. So several governments enacted laws and regulations to protect them - particularly Peru. which for example in addition to prohibiting poaching and other forms of exploitation and instituting those strict shearing standards also required their wool to be sent back to the towns and villages protecting vicuñas from poachers. The 1969 Convention for the Conservation of the Vicuña and a follow-up treaty eventually signed by all the relevant countries also prohibited international trade and ordered its signatories to create reserves and breeding centers for the animals. Poaching still occurs, but numbers have recovered to around 125,000 across the various countries they inhabit (though they're still listed as endangered in Ecuador).

Some Places to Spot Them

Argentina - San Guillermo Provincial Reserve in the north of the country along the border with Chile

Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni, Salar de Chalviri, and UNESCO World Heritage Ulla Ulla National Reserve.

Chile - The Atacama Desert and Las Vicuñas National Reserve in the far north

Ecuador - Chimborazo Fauna Reserve in the Andes, around the center of the country

Peru - Colca Canyon and Pampa Galeras National Reserve near Ayacucho