Saving the Vicuña

23 May, 2018 | Niahm Elain

Tourism and Nature

Photos: Daniel Maydana

The creature with precious wool that almost went extinct

With Bambi eyes and neat, pointy ears, the slender, tawny vicuña is noticeably more elegant than its shaggy llama and alpaca cousins. It’s hard to believe that this ostensibly delicate creature, robust enough to roam the oxygen-starved altiplano, was once almost a bygone species. In the 1960s, when the number of vicuñas in the world dropped to less than 10,000, the Bolivian and Peruvian governments made an attempt to save the creature. The two governments signed an agreement that made it illegal to hunt the animal and designated protected areas for the vicuña in the form of national parks and natural reserves. The effort certainly succeeded in recovering its numbers. A 2009 census confirmed the existence of around 112,000 vicuñas, up from 13,000 in 1969. The challenge now is not only to maintain its population but to find sustainable ways to benefit from this potentially lucrative resource.

It is no secret that the vicuña’s value is as much ecological as it is economic. the silky-softness of the fabric yielded from its wool, treated and conditioned, is as coveted as cashmere in the textile industry. Untreated wool is priced at between $350 and $600 per kilo, and a finished product, like a scarf or a poncho, can sell for anything between $2,000 to a whopping $50,000.

Indeed, the rusty-hued hairs of the vicuña may very well be mistaken for threads of gold. This is why the vicuña has historically been a highly-revered creature and, naturally, highly in-demand. In the Pre-Columbian era, its luxurious wool clothed figures of high social status and was treated with a quasi-religious respect. Back then, the method used to obtain vicuña wool consisted in a ritual, called ‘chaku’, that involved gathering and shearing the creatures before returning them to the wild. The arrival of Spanish colonists, however, gave rise to a hunting trend that spelled the vicuña’s gradual demise. With no respect for indigenous beliefs but a fervent desire for the animal’s supple coat, they hunted the vicuña without control nor restriction, with a ruthless frequency that brought the species to the brink of extinction.

The vicuña cannot be raised because it resists domestication. The sheer effort of capturing them in the wild was, and still is, enough to encourage hunters to prefer shooting and skinning them over the traditional ‘chaku’ method. Admittedly, the cost of assembling, hiring and feeding a team of 50 to 60 able-bodied people (which is the necessary number for a successful capture) is undeniably high. Added to this, months of careful observation are required in order to determine the best time and place to seize them. Prior to the attempted round up, one must monitor the migration and grazing habits of the elusive camelid herd. The use of the traditional method, however, although demanding, is key not only to protect the country’s biodiversity, but also to diversify its economy. This is because the vicuña shares the Andean highlands with some of Bolivia’s rural and poorest communities.

Daniel Maydana, who runs a sustainable tourism programme in Potosí, has been working for the conservation of the species. His programme, which is sponsored by the Embassy of Canada, supports indigenous communities that inhabit the vicuña’s protected areas to shear the creature at a certain time each year, encouraging the integration of these communities to form cooperatives and stronger corralling teams. The promotion of this method is essential to establish a law-abiding technique to obtain vicuña wool and allow locals to profit from this resource in a sustainable way.

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‘It’s a strange thing that happens here in Bolivia, this lack of reliance on, or even awareness of how to benefit from, our resources and the international market… It’s a country that’s closed to the world.’

—Daniel Maydana

Though it’s a Bolivian resource with great economic potential, Bolivia doesn’t have its own efficiently-functioning vicuña wool industry. Selling it with value-added rather than as a raw material would greatly increase its economic value. Since the country’s colonisation, however, the techniques for treating the wool have been gradually lost over the centuries. Without any government support the industry cannot thrive. Maydana’s project, for example, receives no support from the Bolivian government. ‘We receive no public funding,’ he says. ‘Not a single person from the ministry has even paid our communities a visit, to see the work that we do.’

Due to this local loss of technical know-how, the vicuña wool that is sold in Bolivia has been previously exported, woven into a product, and then imported back into the country, making it impossibly expensive. The high prices for these goods encourage the existence of a black-market that serves wealthy backpackers or cholitas who don vicuña wool for occasions such as the festival of Gran Poder coming up this month. According to Maydana, most vicuña wool products sold in Bolivia are made from illegally sourced material. Although the punishment for illegal traders is three to six years in prison, criminals somehow seem to slip through the legal net, circumventing the wool certification process. This uncertified wool is smuggled across the border to Peru, where it is often mixed with wool from other camelids to make a cheaper piece of clothing. As a result, there is no guarantee as to the quality and purity of most garments sold locally.

In addition to internal distribution issues surrounding vicuña-wool products, there are also significant obstacles when it comes to accessing the international market. Although the majority of the wool collected in Bolivia is shipped to manufacturers in the United States, China and Europe, the wool must first pass a complex certification procedure to be declared legal and thus exportable. The certification process can be slow and arduous. From the moment of closing a sale to receiving payment for the wool, a merchant could be waiting for up to 20 months. The processing time was recently reduced to seven months, but last year it climbed back up to 14 months. By contrast, the median waiting time in Peru is no more than three weeks.

‘Banal things such as administrative obstacles and judicial insecurity are holding us back,’ Maydana says. Another bureaucratic hurdle is that sellers have to register as exporters, and their registration (which takes weeks to finalise in the first place) can be annulled for reasons such as not making a sale in a given amount of time. In Peru, this registration is valid for life, regardless of sales activity. ‘All they need is a piece of paper,’ Maydana says.‘Instead, it’s a torture here.’

Maydana points out that, ‘It is a strange thing that happens here in Bolivia, this lack of reliance on, or even awareness of how to benefit from, our resources and the international market. Unlike Peru,’ he explains, ‘which has an established an alpaca wool industry and is a country known for its alpacas, this is a country that’s closed to the world.’

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Although there is faith that the number of living vicuñas will climb to 400,000 by the next census, it remains to be seen whether administrative improvements will have been made so that the people of Bolivia can benefit from this thriving recuperation.


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