Camelid Comeback: Scientists Search for Ways to Save Wild Cousins on Two Continents

Article excerpt

A female Bactrian camel stands out from her wild Mongolian herd. She sports a tan, leather collar. Last October, researchers installed the tracking device on this two-humped native of the Asian desert steppe. She represents one of the three species of remaining wild camelids in the world. Only 1,500 to 3,000 of the enigmatic Camelus bactrianus roam Mongolia and China. These animals therefore recently received protection from the Convention on Migratory Species (SN: 10/12/02, p. 237).

On the other side of the world, wild camelids called vicunaare a little further from the brink of extinction but still objects of conservation biologists' concerns. The number of Vicugna vicugna in the species' native countries--Peril, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador-dropped from 2 million in Incan times to around 10,000 in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, these five South American countries signed a collective agreement to protect the animal. And in 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, prohibited the commercial trade of vicuna products, from hides to wool.

Today, approximately 220,000 vicuna--over half of which live in Peru--graze the high Andes. Remarkably, they have rebounded to the point where governments are permitting citizens to once again capture and shear the animals for their silky fibers, as South Americans had done for centuries. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined CITES in downgrading some vicuna populations from endangered to the status of threatened with extinction. For the first time in 32 years, vicuna wool and cloth can legally enter the United States.

Just as conservation biologists helped the vicuna recover, they hope to protect the wild camels in Asia. The future of both camelids hinges on decisions now being made about their management.

CAMELID CHAOS Cattle's last wild ancestor--aurochs--died out in Poland during the 17th century. In contrast, domesticated camelids coexist with their wild forms.

Camelids originated in North America around 30 million years ago and split into two groups 11 million years ago. One group eventually crossed the Bering Land Bridge to Asia where, following an evolutionary path that's only sketchily understood, it became the two-humped Bactrian camel and the one-humped dromedary.

The other group migrated into South America, where it survives today as wild guanacos and vicunas and domesticated llamas and alpacas. For many years, historians and scientists assumed that the Incas had created both the llamas and alpacas by domesticating the guanaco, which is larger and more widely distributed than the vicuna.

While the ancestor of the llama is indeed the guanaco, the ancestor of the alpaca is really the vicuna, according to a 2001 genetic study by an international team including Jane C. Wheeler, director of the South American Camelid Research and Development Organization in Lima. wheeler says that the Incans never hybridized alpacas and llamas after their domestication 6,000 to 7, 000 years ago. "In all of the chaos of the Spanish conquest, there was a complete breakdown of management," she says. Within 100 years of the conquest, 80 to 90 percent of South America's domesticated camelids died off. Since then, Latin Americans have haphazardly crossbred the remaining alpacas and llamas.

Today, only 20 percent of alpacas are genetically pure. The diameter of alpaca fiber has increased significantly, making it less valuable, since the time of Incan rule, says Wheeler. The Spaniards also began killing vicuna, which Incan royalty had ruthlessly protected. Only Incan rulers could wear revered vicunawool. New World settlers and their livestock also pushed the wild vicuna higher into the rugged Andes grassland, where hunters into the 20th century continued to kill them for their pelts. Vicuna populations continued to diminish and become fragmented. …