The Vicuña Makes A Comeback

A herd of vicuñas in Peru Photo: Marshallhenrie, Wikimedia CC

By Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

Just a few decades ago, the vicuña was nearly extinct from overhunting. Today, there are more than 350,000 vicuñas — the long-necked fluffy alpaca cousins — living in their native range along the Andes. How did this conservation comeback happen?  By giving communities the rights to shear the vicuñas for their prized wool, the animals became a source of income. Peru and Bolivia also both created protected areas for wildlife. These protections coupled with reframing the vicuñas as more valuable alive brought the population back.

Why This Matters: Vicuña wool is a luxury item and one of the most expensive fibers in the world. The animals remain wild, but once a year get rounded up for shearing. The local communities receive a share (although not as much as they should) of that money.  The vicuñas’ recovery story is a lesson in sustainability and valuing nature, key arguments in favor of conserving 30% of the planet by 2030. Their success shows, as a Conservation International videographer explained, that “these communities and these animals are not only living together but thriving through conservation. This is a win-win for people and nature.”  

Location, Location, Location

Biodiversity loss in Latin America and the Caribbean is currently the most intense on earth. The region’s wildlife population declined by 94% on average, according to the WWF’s Living Planet Index this year. Human activities are driving this change, but we also have the ability to change systems and turn things around. Giving value to nature — protecting endangered animals and their habitat — certainly helped the vicuña and could be the key to protecting other species at risk as well.  

Poaching remains a threat

 When vicuñas were declared extinct, the countries where they live banned the trade of their wool. Later, in the 1990s and 2000s, trade was reintroduced with the community structure, but that also provided an opening for poaching and illegal trade. A 2013 study found that poaching only impacted about 1% of the population, but some conservationists fear that the actual numbers are much higher.

The climate change impact

While vicuñas have come back from the human harm of hunting in the 20th century, they’ll face the human harm of climate change in this one. The high-altitude grassland and wetlands they live in are fragile mountain ecosystems already experiencing drought and temperature swings. This, in turn, reduces the water and grass that the vicuñas need to survive. 

To Go Deeper:  You can see cute vicuñas in action — just watch this clip of them during an annual roundup in the Peruvian Andes from Our Human Planet.

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