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Vicuna Fleece

Image: picked alpaca fleece

What is vicuna and why is it so popular in the world of fashion? Vicuna (or Vicugna) is a slender wild animal that lives in South America. It is famous for its very desirable and expensive wool. Why is Vicuna fleece expensive? Vicuna wool is one of the finest in the world along with Shahtooch, or the wool of chiru, a Tibetan antelope.

The other reason for the high price is its scarcity. Vicuna wool is rare for three reasons:

  1. The vicuna hair grows very slowly and can be shorn only once every three years. Averaging 3.3 pounds per sheering, only a very small amount of wool can be obtained from a single animal.
  2. The population of vicunas is very low. Vicunas were heavily hunted in the 1960s reducing the population to near extinction. Only because of the preservation efforts, the vicuna population grew from 6,000 in the 1970s to 350,000 adult animals today (2023).
  3. The vicuna is the only animal of its type that cannot be domesticated because of its unusual mating behavior and brazen predisposition. Since farming vicunas is out of the question, the only way to collect its wool is to catch, sheer, and release the animals.

Facts about Vicuna

So what kind of animal is vicuna? Sometimes, people ask if vicuna is a type of goat or antelope without horns or a dainty little giraffe without spots. No, it’s none of those. The vicuna is the smallest member of the camel family. Genetically, vicuna is shown to be a predecessor of alpaca. Its genus name is Lama vicugna (aka Vicugna vicugna). Unlike alpaca, however, vicuna has never been domesticated.

Image: Vicuna in the Andes
Vicunas in the Andes

Vicuna Taxonomy and Evolution

Taxonomy:
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Camelidae
Genus: Lama
Species: Lama vicugna

Image: vicuna

Vicunas’ Habitat

Unlike other camels, the vicuna lives in South America exclusively. Andean native, vicuna chooses the semi-desert environment of the Central Andes at altitudes from about 10,000 to 16,000 feet (3,000 to 5,000 meters) above sea level. The highest population of vicunas is in Peru. They are also found in the mountains of Bolivia, northern parts of Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador.

Image: Cordillera Blanca

One of the reasons for choosing mountainous habitat is an escape from predation. Puma is the main predator of vicunas. Half of the calf deaths and 91% of adult mortality are attributed to puma predation. Other predators are Andean foxes, and occasionally domestic dogs.

During daylight, the vicunas graze on the slopes and in valleys at lower elevations. They can see a predator at a distance in the open fields. When a predator is spotted, they will either escape or “team up” and threaten the animal. At night, vicunas move to higher altitudes. Their unprecedented agility on the rocks and avoidance of the active nocturnal pumas assure some safety in the darkness.

Fortunately, humans do not present a threat to vicunas anymore. Since signing the Convention for the Conservation of the Vicuña, the hosting countries protect this animal and promote its population recovery. In fact, the vicuna is the national animal of Peru representing the country’s natural wealth by virtue of its world-famous finest wool.

Vicunas’ Diet

A seasoned alpaca farmer once taught me to feed less alfalfa to my alpacas if I want them to have fine and soft wool. The logic behind this makes perfect sense. Hair is made of mostly protein (amino acid chains). If you want hair to grow thicker, you increase protein in the diet. If you feed low protein to your animals, their hair grows thinner. Alfalfa (aka Lucerne) is a legume that is very high in protein. In addition, alfalfa does not grow in the alpaca’s natural habitat.

Image: in the Andes

Similarly, the vicuna’s diet is comprised of vegetation that is relatively low in protein. Their diet includes dry- and wet-grassland grasses and other plants such as graminoids and forbs. Because this vegetation is high in cellulose and poor in nutrients, the vicunas developed a specialized, so-called pseudo-ruminant, digestive system.

But, just like cows, sheep, and other ruminants, they also eat in 2 different stages. First, they graze in the morning and then rest and ruminate the cud in the afternoon. Their highly specialized digestive system allows them to consume fibrous and resilient desert plants.

Behavior and Reproduction

Image: vicuna herd

Vicunas are social and territorial animals. They form three types of groups: family, bachelor, and solitary herds. A family herd will occupy about 40 acres of land. Each family has one male and 5 to 15 females along with their offspring. Vicunas keep their grounds clean. They deposit their excrement in one spot just like alpacas. The male protects the territory and its residents from predators and other intruders year round. They are especially protective of their females during mating periods between January and April. Since the male is the main safe keeper, the females are not very protective of their young. They will leave their progeny in moments of danger.

The Golden Fleece of Vicuna

The appreciation of vicuna wool dates back to the ancient Incas who captured, sheared, and released the animals back to their habitat. The Incan tradition continues in modern times. The famous round-up festivals in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina play a very important role in the countries’ economies.

Image: Fleece harvest

During these events, the local Serranos, or the villagers of the Andes, gather in large groups to round up and capture the elusive vicunas. They shear the valuable fleece and release the animals. The wool is then shipped to Europe for processing and turning into exorbitantly-priced garments only suitable for the extravagance of the rich.

Image: round up

The roundup process is laborious and unpredictable. Small mistakes can lead to big failures. Frustrating for the catchers, vicuna fleece harvesting contributes to the local economy. For example, Peru exported seven tons of vicuna fleece and profited by three million US dollars. In comparison, the export of the farmed alpaca fleece yielded a hundred times higher profits that year.

Image: Vicuna fleece harvest

The largest profits are gained through processing the fleece and making garments. Seasonal vicuna wool processing facilities are costly and not justifiable within the local economies.

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