The Golden Fleece of the Vicunas
The vicuna, a relative of the llama, has a storied history. The Incas believed it was the reincarnation of a beautiful woman who received a golden coat in exchange for marrying a hideous king. For this reason, only Incan royalty were permitted to wear clothes made from vicuna wool. In the modern age, this wool was worn by Hollywood royalty, a favourite of stars like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Today the vicuna is heralded as a rare example of a species that was rescued from the brink of extinction. But are vicunas truly no longer at risk or is history likely to repeat itself?
Vicunas are only found in South America and are concentrated in the Andes. The coat of a vicuna is both luxuriously soft and highly functional. On the plains where vicunas make their home the temperature can plummet to freezing at night. Thanks to a biological adaptation their coats keep them warm overnight, trapping heat close to the body.
According to The Wall Street Journal, vicuna wool also has “an unparalleled lightness that makes you feel almost buoyant.” Those tempted to roll their eyes at this description will likely be surprised to learn that just one vicuna scarf from Loro Piana retails for approximately $4,000. Because of its legendary softness vicuna wool is in high demand and it is sold at a high cost meaning that its status as a fabric favoured by the elite has not changed since the fall of the Incan empire.
Another reason for the high cost is that it takes roughly 40 vicunas to produce enough wool for a single coat. What is more, vicunas cannot be domesticated. They are incredibly fast runners and “master escape artists.” They have also been known to starve themselves to death if they are successfully captured. Because of this vicunas are usually only held for a very brief period of time before being shorn and released back into the wild.
As Kate Carter of The Guardian notes, the vicuna population “plunged the minute the conquistadores appeared.” Spanish colonizers shared the Inca’s appreciation of vicuna wool but preferred to kill and skin vicunas rather than use the capture-and-release method employed by the Incas. Several hundred years later vicunas were terrifyingly scarce. In 1974 (the year they were officially classified as endangered), there were only 6,000 vicunas remaining.
Recognizing that this culturally significant animal was in grave danger, the Peruvian and Chilean governments introduced measures to prevent extinction. Trading vicuna wool was prohibited. Local communities were eventually encouraged to return to collecting wool in the manner favoured by the Incans. By the 1990s the vicuna population had recovered and the ban on trade was lifted.
There is, of course, a lot to celebrate in this dramatic turnaround. Still, it is important to bear in mind that although vicunas are increased in number there is always the possibility that their fortunes may once again be reversed. Because it is used in the manufacturing of luxury goods, vicuna wool is very appealing to poachers. Poachers, like the conquistadores before them, typically kill vicunas and then skin their carcasses. These skins are then smuggled out of the country and sold to European clothing manufacturers. Each year roughly 50,000 pounds of vicuna wool is exported that has been collected illicitly.
Additionally, individuals who use traditional, sustainable practices to harvest vicuna wool have in some cases been threatened by poachers. Combatting poaching is difficult because there are fewer police officers stationed at villages at higher elevations. Local law enforcement may also not be as well-armed as poachers who sometimes carry types of guns that are officially banned by the government. In fact, two police officers in Chile were killed in January of last year after detaining poachers at a roadblock.
For those looking to fight poaching (not simply in South America but globally), The World Wildlife Fund makes the following recommendations:
“Push governments to protect threatened animal populations by increasing law enforcement, imposing strict deterrents, reducing demand for endangered species products and honoring international commitments made under CITES.
Speak up on behalf of those on the frontlines being threatened by armed poachers so they are properly equipped, trained and compensated.
Reduce demand for illegal wildlife parts and products by encouraging others to ask questions and get the facts before buying any wildlife or plant product.”