The smallest member of the camelid family, the vicuna is thought to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca (8). With large, forward-facing eyes on a small, wedge-shaped head and sharply triangular ears, the vicuna looks endearing. It has a long neck and legs, and walks on the soles of its feet, rather than just the toes, to gain better grip on rocks and gravel (2), and minimise erosion of the fragile soil of its habitat (9). The head varies from yellow to reddish-brown in colour, blending into a pale orange neck. A silky, white mane with fur up to 30 centimetres long covers the chest area, but the fur on the remainder of the body is soft and uniform in length. The back is pale brown and the underside and inner parts of the flanks are dirty white (2).
Social organization in vicuna is characterized by the existence of family groups, bachelor groups and solitary males (13). In family groups a single dominant male leads a group of females and juveniles numbering up to ten individuals. He marks out two territories from which he drives other males away. The feeding territory is the larger of the two, with the separate sleeping territory found at a higher altitude. Vicuna undergo daily migrations, spending the night and early morning on dry slopes and then descending to the grassland and marshes to graze before returning to the slopes in the late afternoon (14). Vicuna feed on short grasses, tearing at them with teeth that grow continuously, as in rodents (2). Steep slopes are used by the vicuna in order to escape from some predators (13). When threatened, the dominant male gives a whistling alarm call and places himself between the herd and the danger. Vicuna can run at up to 50 kilometres an hour and their movement is surprisingly graceful (2).
During the breeding season, which varies depending on the region (9), the dominant male mates with all the mature females in his herd. Gestation lasts from 330 to 350 days, resulting in the birth of a single calf. The calf is on its feet just 15 minutes after birth, but remains with its mother for four to nine months if male and eight to ten months if female. Non-dominant males become either solitary or join large bachelor herds (2). They are sexually mature by two years (2).
The vicuna is found in the Andes of southern Peru, western Bolivia, north-western Argentina, and northern Chile (2)(10). Two subspecies have been described: Vicugna vicugna vicugna occurs in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, while Vicugna vicugna mensalis is found in Chile, Bolivia and Peru (1). The vicuna was introduced into Ecuador in 1988 with the help of Peru, Chile and Bolivia who all donated individuals from their own stock (11).
The vicuna inhabits mountainous areas at altitudes above 3,200 metres (12), where it grazes on the short and tough vegetation of the semi-arid rolling grasslands, plains and marshes known as “puna” or “antiplano” (10). The climate is dry and hot during the day but cold at night; vicuna must live near water due to their daily water demands (2).
The vicuna is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendices I and II of CITES (4), and Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention), except for the Peruvian populations which are listed on Appendix II (5). It is also listed as Threatened by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (6)(7).
During the period of the Incas, vicuna were caught to be sheared and were then released. Subsequently, demand for their valuable wool has been high and excessive hunting caused a massive decrease in populations, with numbers reaching an all time low in the 1960s (15). Since then, a number of conservation initiatives have been implemented and numbers are recovering. However, there are still a number of threats (10).
Local people in the region, which consider vicuna as competitors of domestic livestock, do not tolerate their presence and may be a highly significant factor influencing vicuna distribution (15)(16). Poaching still takes place, and vicuna fibre and products are smuggled in large quantities to Europe or Asia (9). Habitat loss, either through over-grazing by domestic livestock or as a result of human activities, such as mining and pollution of water sources, poses a further threat and it is thought that climate change may have a damaging effect on the delicate ecosystem the vicuna inhabits (17). A new potential threat, both in the Andes and worldwide, is the breeding of pacovicuña (an alpaca and vicuna hybrid) for commercial purposes (9)(10).
Standing at two million individuals during the time of the Incas, vicuna were a common species (16). Since the Spanish conquest, massive numbers of vicuna are thought to have been slaughtered. By 1960, the population had been reduced to around 10,000, but international and national conservation efforts has resulted in an increase in the population to nearly 200,000 animals in less than 30 years (10)(11)(16). In 1969, the five countries with vicuna signed an agreement called the Convention of Vicuña (Convenio para la Conservación de la Vicuña) where they committed themselves to create rules and regulations in order to stop vicuna hunting activities. A network of protected areas for vicuna was created across the different countries and each government developed an Action Plan for their conservation. (16). In 1979, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Bolivia signed a new Convention for the Conservation and Management of the Vicuña, and Andean communities, who had been paying the cost for vicuna conservation, were named as the main beneficiaries of vicuna use (16). . Different management occurs in different countries, for example, Bolivia supports community-based management, capturing, shearing and releasing wild vicuna with the participation of local communities, whereas Argentina promotes the management of captive vicuna; however, this seems to have a negative effect on vicuna in the wild (18). Management of vicuna will only be successful if based on sound scientific information and proper enforcement (9)(10).
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