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Vicugna vicugna at about 4,000m, near the Chajnantor Plateau, NW Chile. Simon Green 17th April 2018.jpg
Vicuña in the Atacama Desert
CITES Appendix I ( CITES) [2] [note 1]
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Camelidae
Genus: Lama
L. vicugna
Binomial name
Lama vicugna
( Molina, 1782)
Extensión de la vicuña.png
Vicuña range
  • Vicugna vicugna Molina, 1782
  • Lama gracilis? Gervais & Ameghino, 1881

The vicuña (Lama vicugna) or vicuna [3] (both /vɪˈknjə/, very rarely spelled vicugna, its former genus name) [4] [5] is one of the two wild South American camelids, which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes, the other being the guanaco, which lives at lower elevations. Vicuñas are relatives of the llama, and are now believed to be the wild ancestor of domesticated alpacas, which are raised for their coats. Vicuñas produce small amounts of extremely fine wool, which is very expensive because the animal can only be shorn every three years and has to be caught from the wild. When knitted together, the product of the vicuña's wool is very soft and warm. The Inca valued vicuñas highly for their wool, and it was against the law for anyone but royalty to wear vicuña garments; today, the vicuña is the national animal of Peru and appears on the Peruvian coat of arms. [6]

Both under the rule of the Inca and today, vicuñas have been protected by law, but they were heavily hunted in the intervening period. At the time they were declared endangered in 1974, only about 6,000 animals were left. Today, the vicuña population has recovered to about 350,000, [1] and although conservation organizations have reduced its level of threat classification, they still call for active conservation programs to protect populations from poaching, habitat loss, and other threats.

Previously the vicuña was thought not to have been domesticated, and the llama and the alpaca were both regarded as descendants of the closely related guanaco. But DNA research published in 2001 has shown the alpaca may well have vicuña parentage. [7] Today, the vicuña is mainly wild, but the local people still perform special rituals with these creatures, including a fertility rite.[ citation needed]


The vicuña is considered more delicate and gracile than the guanaco, and smaller. A key distinguishing element of morphology is the better-developed incisor roots for the guanaco. [8] The vicuña's long, woolly coat is tawny brown on the back, whereas the hair on the throat and chest is white and quite long. The head is slightly shorter than the guanaco's and the ears are slightly longer. The length of head and body ranges from 1.45 to 1.60 m (about 5 ft); shoulder height is from 75 to 85 cm (around 3 ft); its weight is from 35 to 65 kg (under 150 lb). It falls prey to the puma and culpeo.[ citation needed]

Taxonomy and evolution

There are two subspecies of vicuña:

  • Lama vicugna vicugna
  • Lama vicugna mensalis

While vicuñas are restricted to the more extreme elevations of the Andes in modern times, they may have also been present in the lowland regions of Patagonia as much as 3500 km south of their current range during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene. Fossils of these lowland camelids have been assigned to a species known as Lama gracilis, but genetic and morphological analysis between them and modern vicuña indicate the two may be the same. [9]

Distribution and habitat

Vicuñas are native to the central Andes in South America. They are found in Peru, northwestern Argentina, Bolivia, and northern Chile. A smaller, introduced population lives in central Ecuador. [1]

Vicuñas live at altitudes of 3,200 to 4,800 m (10,500–15,700 ft). [1] They feed in daytime on the grassy plains of the Andes Mountains, but spend the nights on the slopes. In these areas, only nutrient-poor, tough, bunch grasses and Festuca grow. The sun's rays are able to penetrate the thin atmosphere, producing relatively warm temperatures during the day; however, the temperatures drop to freezing at night. The vicuña's thick but soft coat is a special adaptation which traps layers of warm air close to its body, so it can tolerate freezing temperatures.[ citation needed]

Chief predators include pumas and the culpeo.[ citation needed]


Herd of vicuñas near Arequipa, Peru

The behavior of vicuñas is similar to that of the guanacos. They are very shy animals, and are easily aroused by intruders, due, among other things, to their extraordinary hearing. Like the guanacos, they frequently lick calcareous stones and rocks, which are rich in salt, and also drink salt water. Vicuñas are very clean animals, and always deposit their excrement in the same place. [10] Their diets consist mainly of low grasses which grow in clumps on the ground.[ citation needed]

Vicuñas live in family-based groups made up of a male, 5 to 15 females, and their young. Each group has its own territory of about 18 km2 (6.9 sq mi), which can fluctuate depending on the availability of food.[ citation needed]

Mating usually occurs in March–April, and after a gestation period of about 11 months, the female gives birth to a single fawn, which is nursed for about 10 months. The fawn becomes independent at about 12 to 18 months old. Young males form bachelor groups and the young females search for a sorority to join. This deters intraspecific competition and inbreeding.[ citation needed]


Parties to the 1979 Vicuña Convention

From the period of Spanish conquest to 1964, hunting of the vicuña was unrestricted, which reduced its numbers to only 6,000 in the 1960s. As a result, the species was declared endangered in 1974, and its status prohibited the trade of vicuña wool. In Peru, during 1964–1966, the Servicio Forestal y de Caza in cooperation with the US Peace Corps, Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and the National Agrarian University of La Molina established a nature conservatory for the vicuña called the Pampa Galeras – Barbara D'Achille in Lucanas Province, Ayacucho. During that time, a game warden academy was held in Nazca, where eight men from Peru and six from Bolivia were trained to protect the vicuña from poaching.[ citation needed]

To cooperate on the conservation of the vicuña, the governments of Bolivia and Peru signed the Convention for the Conservation of the Vicuña on 16 August 1969 in La Paz, explicitly leaving the treaty open to accession by Argentina and Chile. [11] Ecuador acceded on 11 February 1976. [11] The Convention prohibited international trade in the vicuña, domestic exploitation of the vicuña, and ordered the parties to create reserves and breeding centres. [12] A follow-up treaty, the Convention for the Conservation and Management of the Vicuña, was signed between Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru on 20 December 1979 in Lima. [12] [13] It explicitly allowed only Argentina to sign it if it also signed the 1969 La Paz Convention (Article 12; [13] Argentina joined in 1981 [12]), and did not allow other countries to accede to the convention 'due to its specific character' (Article 13). [13] The 1979 Convention did allow the use of the vicuña under strict circumstances if the animal population had recovered sufficiently. [12] In combination with CITES (effective in 1975), as well as USA and EU trade legislation, the Conventions were extremely successful, as the vicuña population substantially grew as a result. [12]

The estimated population in Peru increased from 6,000 to 75,000[ when?] with protection by game wardens.[ citation needed] Currently,[ when?] the community of Lucanas conducts a chaccu (herding, capturing, and shearing) on the reserve each year to harvest the wool, organized by the National Council for South American Camelids (CONACS).[ citation needed]

In Bolivia, the Ulla Ulla National Reserve was founded in 1977 partly as a sanctuary for the species.[ citation needed] Their numbers grew to 125,000[ when?] in Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia.[ citation needed] Since this was a ready "cash crop" for community members, the countries relaxed regulations on vicuña wool in 1993, enabling its trade once again.[ citation needed] The wool is sold[ when?] on the world market for over $300 per kg, to help support the community.[ citation needed] In 2002, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified most populations as threatened, but still lists Ecuador's population as endangered. [14] While the population levels have recovered to a healthy level,[ when?] poaching remains a constant threat, as do habitat loss and other threats.[ citation needed] Consequently, the IUCN still supports active conservation programs to protect vicuñas, though they lowered their status to least concern in 2018. [1]

Vicuña wool

Vicuña near Chimborazo in Ecuador

The wool is popular due to its warmth, and is used for apparel such as socks, sweaters, accessories, shawls, coats, and suits, and home furnishings such as blankets and throws. Its properties come from the tiny scales on the hollow, air-filled fibres. It causes them to interlock and trap insulating air. Vicuñas have some of the finest fibers in the world, at a diameter of 12 μm. The fiber of cashmere goats is 14 to 19 μm, while angora rabbit is 8 to 12 μm and that of shahtoosh from the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, is from 9 to 12 μm. [15]



  1. ^ a b c d e Acebes, P.; Wheeler, J.; Baldo, J.; Tuppia, P.; Lichtenstein, G.; Hoces, D.; Franklin, W.L. (2019) [errata version of 2018 assessment]. "Vicugna vicugna". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2018: e.T22956A145360542. doi: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22956A145360542.en. Retrieved 15 February 2020.
  2. ^ "Appendices | CITES". Retrieved 14 January 2022.
  3. ^ The spelling vicuña is not even mentioned in some dictionaries, for example the Macmillan Dictionary
  4. ^ The spelling vicugna is so rare in English that it is not even mentioned in the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia or any major dictionary, including the American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Oxford Living Dictionaries, Random House Dictionary, Collins English Dictionary, and Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
  5. ^ Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M., eds. (2005). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN  978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC  62265494.
  6. ^ Ley del 25 de febrero, Art. 1
  7. ^ Wheeler, Dr Jane; Kadwell, Miranda; Fernandez, Matilde; Stanley, Helen F.; Baldi, Ricardo; Rosadio, Raul; Bruford, Michael W. (December 2001). "Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 268 (1485): 2575–2584. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1774. PMC  1088918. PMID  11749713. 0962-8452 (Paper), 1471-2954 (Online).
  8. ^ Hogan, C. Michael (7 December 2008). Strömberg, N. (ed.). "Guanaco: Lama guanicoe". GlobalTwitcher. Archived from the original on 4 March 2011.
  9. ^ Weinstock, J. (2009). "The Late Pleistocene distribution of vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) and the "extinction" of the gracile llama ("Lama gracilis"): New molecular data". Quaternary Science Reviews. 28 (15–16): 1369–1373. Bibcode: 2009QSRv...28.1369W. doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.03.008.
  10. ^ Schuhmacher, Eugen (1 January 1968). The last of the wild: on the track of rare animals. Collins. p. 304.
  11. ^ a b Convenio para la Conservación de la Vicuña (Wikisource). Source: Registro Oficial N° 144 de 4 de agosto de 1976 (Official Gazette of the Government of Ecuador no. #144, 4 August 1976).
  12. ^ a b c d e McNeill, Desmond; Lichtenstein, Gabriela; Renaudeau d' Arc, Nadine (23 October 2008). "Chapter 6: International Policies and National Legislation Concernign Vicuña Conservation and Exploitation". The Vicuña: The Theory and Practice of Community Based Wildlife Management. p. 63–64. ISBN  9780387094755. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  13. ^ a b c "Convenio para la Conservación y Manejo de la Vicuña" (PDF). (in Spanish). Convenio de la Vicuña. 20 December 1979. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  14. ^ "Species Profile: Vicuna (Vicugna vicugna)". U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Archived from the original on 1 February 2009. Retrieved 4 January 2009.
  15. ^ Roberson, Mary-Russell (January–February 2008). "Discovering South America's Camels". Smithsonian Zoogoer. National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA: Friends of the National Zoo. Archived from the original on 21 March 2008. Retrieved 16 May 2010.


  1. ^ Except populations of Argentina (populations of provinces of Jujuy, Salta, and Catamarca and semi-captive populations of provinces of Jujuy, Salta, Catamarca, La Rioja, and San Juan), Chile (populations of the region of Tarapacá and of the region of Arica and Parinacota), Ecuador (whole population), Peru (whole population), and the Plurinational State of Bolivia (whole population), which are included in Appendix II.

External links