Description and biology
The smallest member of the camel family, the vicuna is closely related to the llama and the alpaca. The color of the vicuna’s soft and silky coat is light brown above and off-white below. A patch of longer hair covers the animal’s throat and chest, keeping it warm when it rests on the ground. The vicuna has a small head in comparison with its body, and its eyes and ears are small and prominent. Its neck is long.
An average vicuna measures 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) in length and weighs 88 to 110 pounds (40 to 50 kilograms). It stands 30 to 40 inches (76 to 102 centimeters) tall at its shoulder. It feeds primarily on grasses, mosses, and other vegetation. Pumas and Andean foxes are its main predators.
Vicuna are social animals. They form family groups consisting of a dominant male and a number of adult females with their young. The male defends a feeding and sleeping territory averaging 17 to 74 acres (7 to 30 hectares). Those males unable to defend a territory (and thus breed with females) live a solitary life or join other males to form bachelor groups.
Male and female vicuna mate in March or April. A female gives birth to one infant after a gestation (pregnancy) period of 330 to 350 days. The young vicuna nurses for up to ten months and becomes independent after about a year.
Vicunas are highly communicative, signaling one another with body postures, ear and tail placement, and numerous other small movements. Their vocalizations include an alarm call—a high pitched whinny—that alerts the herd to danger. They also emit a soft humming sound to signal bonding or greeting and a range of guttural sounds that communicate anger and fear. “Orgling” is their most unique noise. This male-only, melodic mating sound attracts females.
The vicuna is known for its wool—often said to be among the finest in the world. One thing that makes the wool of the vicuna so popular is its warmth. Vicuna wool is softer, lighter and warmer than any other wool. The vicuna will only produce about one pound of wool in a year (as opposed to the alpaca, which can produce fifteen pounds in a similar time period). This, of course, adds to the rarity of the wool.
Habitat and current distribution
The vicuna is found in the central portion of the Andes Mountains in the South American countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate the current population to be over 100,000.
The vicuna prefers to inhabit semiarid (semidry) grasslands and plateaus at elevations of 9,850 to 15,100 feet (3,000 to 4,600 meters). Groups spend the day in one feeding territory, then move at night to a territory at a higher elevation to sleep.
History and conservation measures
Because of its lustrous wool the vicuna has been sought since the days of the Inca, native Quechuan people of Peru who established an empire in South America in the fifteenth century. The Inca pursued the animal not to kill it, but to shear its wool, which was then made into certain types of ritual clothing. When Spanish explorers (conquistadors) conquered the Inca in the sixteenth century, they began to hunt the vicuna without care.
Before they became the target of hunters, as many as several million vicuna may have existed. By the time of the conquistadors, the animals’ population had been reduced to less than 500,000. By 1965, only 6,500 vicuna survived.
Although international treaties now ban the taking of the vicuna, illegal hunting is still a problem in parts of the animal’s range, particularly in Peru and Bolivia. However, the majority of vicuna currently live on protected reserves.