Shearing Assets of the VICUNA

Article excerpt

An experimental program in the Bolivian Andes may ensure the survival of this once-endangered camelid and improve conditions for poor campesino

Porfirio Callancho has lived his whole life on this nearly fifteen thousand-feet-high plain where his family's alpacas mix with graceful, wild--and useless--vicunas. "Since they are wild animals, we don't receive any benefit," observes Callancho, of the tiny town of Huacuchani. "They are competition for the alpacas."

While residents of the high plain of the Ulla Ulla National Fauna Reserve, straddling the Bolivian-Peruvian border in the eastern range of the Andes, feel pride in the thirty-eight thousand vicunas with whom they share the reserve, they also feel resentment toward the animals, which eat the same forage as domestic livestock but are protected by law, meaning that their extremely valuable fur may not be touched. Until education campaigns began a few years ago locals drove the vicunas away with dogs and poaching was common.

However, a new experimental live-shearing program, based on ancient methods, is meant to provide altiplano communities with a new source of income--and an incentive to protect and attract their valuable neighbors. "It's been seen that the best way to conserve is through management," states Oscar Rendon, chief of the wildlife office of the sustainable development ministry's biodiversity office.

The fact that vicunas have become competition for domestic livestock is a tribute to the success of protective measures. In past decades poachers so decimated the animals that by 1965 the vicunas had been reduced from their estimated pre-Hispanic population of as many as 1.5 million to perhaps six thousand in their five-nation Andean range. In 1972 Ulla Ulla rangers counted only ninety-eight vicunas in the reserve's high plain, where nearly all the reserve's vicunas live.

But the species' plight brought responses. In 1970 vicunas were classified as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act, and when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) went into force in 1975 it included all vicuna populations in its most protected Appendix I category, prohibiting all primarily commercial international trade in vicuna products. In 1972 the 593,000-acre Ulla Ulla reserve was established primarily to protect the area's vicuna population. And in 1969 and 1979 nations with vicuna populations signed conventions prohibiting the commercialization of vicuna products. Today, officials estimate that seventy-five hundred vicunas live in the reserve and about thirty-eight thousand in Bolivia, roughly 20 percent of the 190,000-animal Andean population.

International and national protections were so effective that between 1987 and 1997 CITES transferred all of Peru's vicuna populations and some of those in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, to Appendix II, which permits international trade in vicuna products under carefully controlled conditions. And last September the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed reclassifying the vicuna from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act and allowing importation of vicuna fiber products. At the next CITES meeting, in February 2000, the nations with native vicunas intend to ask that all populations, except for Ecuador's, be transferred to Appendix II. Ecuador's native vicuna population became extinct and was only recently reestablished with animals donated by other nations.

Vicunas, which may be alpacas' wild ancestors, are one of four South American camelids. The brown and white animals are, with guanacos, one of the group's two wild members. Slender but strong, vicunas are social animals that spend their days grazing in high-altitude wetlands, either in territorial family groups consisting of a male and several females with their young, or in wandering groups of single males. At night, most vicunas retire to the hills to sleep. …