Vicuñas are South American camelids, whose commercial use has as yet untapped potential for poverty alleviation. Vicuñas and guanacos are among the few native large wild herbivores that inhabit South America and the most abundant free-ranging ungulates to inhabit the continent’s deserts and high plateau scrublands and grasslands. The distribution of vicuñas is limited to elevations above 3,700 metres in the Puna and Altiplano, high Andean ecoregions in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. There are four members of New World camel family in South America – the wild guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) as well as the domestic llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Lama pacos), while there are two Old World camel species in Africa and Asia.

The vicuña was extremely important in the local economy of pre-Hispanic South American indigenous populations. Local rules and regulations along with low human population densities and the lack of firearms prevented over exploitation. The situation changed dramatically after the Spanish Conquest.  Vicuñas were over exploited because of their fine fibre, and hunted to the brink of extinction. By 1960, it was estimated that the vicuña population had dropped from its pre-colonial population of 2 million to some 10,000 individuals.

International, regional and national conservation efforts were successful in halting further population declines. CITES played a key role in the conservation and implementation of sustainable use programmes. In 1975, vicuñas were listed as an endangered species under Appendix I, thus suspending trade for the time being. As vicuña numbers increased, certain populations from Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina were gradually transferred to Appendix II. Given that vicuña distribution overlaps with rural Andean communities that face high levels of persistent poverty and inequality, there are high expectations at the local level that livelihoods can be substantially improved through vicuña use. In 1979, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Ecuador signed the Convention for the Conservation and Management of the Vicuña. Andean people, who had been bearing the burden of vicuña conservation, were named as the main beneficiaries of future vicuña use in Article I of the Vicuña Convention, and in the signatory states’ subsequent submissions to CITES meetings.

The vicuña management programmes developed in the Andes follow the logic of community-based wildlife management. The five vicuña countries have adopted different models for vicuña management to reflect country-specific social organization systems, idiosyncrasies and livelihoods, as well as national and local laws pertaining to resource and land tenure. The first management systems, developed in Peru and Bolivia, consisted of vicuña management under common property regimes by Aymara and Quechua-speaking communities. They used a capture and release system evolved from the Inca chaku tradition, whereby large numbers of community members holding colourful flags chase vicuñas into a funnel from where vicuñas are taken to be shorn. Modern chakus incorporate animal welfare considerations and the use of more modern technology to support the vicuña roundup.

Vicuña conservation is considered one of CITES’ success stories. The vicuña recovered from a population of only 10,000 to about 421,500 individuals during the period 1965-2010. However, we may wonder if the increase in a species population is enough in order to consider the example as a conservation success. Conservation is not only about wildlife but also about people, their needs, views and values at local level, property rights over resources, local institutions for resource management, interactions at multiple scales, power relationships (at a local, national and international scale), economic drivers, and even the impact of distant market forces. This broader perspective on conservation makes us analyze vicuña sustainable use programmes as a more complex phenomena.

The economic value derived from the use of a wild species could be an opportunity for its conservation, but it could also pose an important threat. In recent years vicuña fibre has turned into an international commodity, attracting a diverse range of economic and political interests including investors and traders with desire for an exclusive business with high economic returns; Members of Parliament interested in turning vicuñas into domestic livestock; politicians who have wanted to hybridize vicuñas with alpacas; veterinarians promoting captive breeding and labs that want to transfer vicuña embryos to llamas and do genetic manipulation in order to increase fibre quality. These different ways of appropriating vicuñas are threatening the conservation of this wild species, the exclusive rights of Andean communities and the spirit of the Vicuña Convention.

Many of these issues were addressed at the recent Vicuña Convention Ordinary Meeting, held in Jujuy, Argentina (July 30th-August 2nd 2012). The Convention resolved not to authorize genetic manipulation, the creation of hybrids or embryonic transfer in vicuñas. It was also ratified among signatory countries that vicuñas should not be managed nor share legislation with domestic livestock. There were great advances from the social perspective as well. The Convention gave support to the presentation by the Bolivian National Association of Vicuña Managers (ACOFIB) to organize the First International Meeting of Rural and Indigenous Communities involved in vicuña management. The meeting will to enable local communities from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador to share lessons learned, discuss issues related to vicuñas conservation and management, and share information with regards fibre commercialization. Hopefully this meeting will strengthen local participation in public policies related to vicuña management and ensure the exclusive rights of Andean communities to benefit from vicuña sustainable use.

Gabriela Lichtenstein holds a research position at the National Research Council (CONICET) in Argentina, lectures at University of Buenos Aires and is also affiliated to National Institute for Anthropology and Latin American Thought (INAPL). She is the Chair of the South American Camelid Specialist Group (GECS). For further information visit: www.camelidosgecs.com.ar

Photo (below): Herding. Credit: Daniel Maydana. Photo (above): Shearing. Credit: Daniel Maydana.