Protecting the Vicunas of Argentina
To protect the species, the government designated ten reserves, six of which are located in the country’s northwest region. Argentina’s largest concentration of vicunas is found along the border with Chile in 370,600-acrea San Guillermo National Park in San Juan province, a popular Argentina travel destination. Part of a 2.4 million-acre UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the protected area includes the San Guillermo Provincial Reserve, established in 1998. Contiguous to these two areas is the million-acre Laguna Brava Provincial Reserve in La Rioja Province, established in 1980, where visitors on Argentina tours will also see flamingos as well as guanacos, another endangered species.
Another UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve, the Laguna Pozuelos Reserve is located in Jujuy province, at the northwestern tip of Argentina. The reserve is across the border from Eduardo Avaroa National Andean Wildlife Reserve in southern Bolivia, which provides 1.7 million more acres of vicuna habitat.
In its preservation efforts, Argentina has experimented with two approaches, captive management, allowing vicunas to be raised in small farming operations, and temporary captivity management in which the vicunas are rounded up and sheared before being released back into the wild. The National Institute for Agricultural Technology (INTA) operates an experimental vicuna farm at Abrapampa in Jujuy Province. Started decades ago, the farm raises vicunas in captivity and is home to about 1,400 animals. INTA’s farm has worked with ranchers of the altiplano to teach them how to raise the species. The government also operates a vicuna nursery in a semi-captive breeding program in Molinos. This indigenous village in Salta Province south of Los Cardones National Park is located at a lower elevation than vicunas are used to inhabiting. Shearing projects have been undertaken in Catamarca and Jujuy provinces, including in the tiny village of Cieneguillas, off the beaten track for most visitors who travel to Argentina.
Since the beginning, scientists have disputed the value of Argentina’s captive management approach, believing it to be antithetical to the notion of protecting vicuna populations in the wild. They argue that the system benefits individual producers more than the local communities, unlike the catch and release program that Peru has implemented with much success. Since the 2007 meeting of the international Convention of the Vicuna 2007, Argentina has stopped promoting institutional captive breeding. The populations of vicunas in some regions of Argentina have increased sufficiently to no longer be considered threatened. That is not so elsewhere in the country.
To learn more about the complicated policy questions of vicuna management before your Argentina tours, read “Vicuna conservation and Poverty Alleviation? Andean communities and international fibre markets” by Gabriela Lichtenstein of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia Pensamiento Latinoamericano, published in the February, 2010 issue of International Journal of the Commons, one of the sources for this article.
The Camelids of South America
Most of what we know about South American camelids is their hair. The fleece of these animals contains no lanolin, so it is hypoallergenic, and though not waterproof, it makes warm lightweight garments. The llama and guanaco both have an outer layer of coarser hair and an inner layer of softer hair. The alpaca and vicuna have no outer layer. The softness of guanaco fleece is between that of the alpaca and vicuna. Though one needn’t travel to Argentina or schedule Peru tours to purchase a wonderful South American camelid garment, you’ll find much lower prices if you do.
Peru exports 4,000 tons of alpaca fleece each year but only three tons of vicuna fleece, both tiny amounts compared to how much sheep’s wool is exported by other countries. Vicuna fleece is the world’s most expensive and one of its softest natural fibers. It sells for over $200 a pound raw and from $1,500 to $3,000 a yard as fabric on the world market to be made into designer clothing. The economics are easy to understand, considering the shearing of each vicuna produces only up to a half-pound of wool, and shearing can occur no more often than every two years.
The unique fleece of South America’s camelids allows them to inhabit high elevation climates. Vicunas and guanacos are wild animals, though they are herded and sheared in temporary captivity, and efforts are underway in some places to hold and raise them. The domesticated llama and alpaca species are raised commercially, primarily in South America. All four species eat grasses. Llamas and alpacas also receive hay from their owners, and the adult guanaco is tall enough to add tree leaves to its diet. Guanacos are the fastest of the South American camelids, capable of running up to forty miles per hour. A vicuna can run about thirty miles per hour.
Like camels, the South American camelids are known to spit, for a variety of reasons, usually to express a sentiment in the realm of, “Get lost, buster.” Pregnant llamas spit to inform males that they are not interested in being wooed. Guanacos may spit when threatened or when they attack. Alpacas sometimes spit to express their displeasure.
Mating causes the females to ovulate, and breeding takes place again a few weeks after giving birth. A South American camelid’s newborn is called a cria. In the guanaco species, the offspring is referred to as a chulengo. The South American camelid habit of giving birth in the early morning hours is a plus in the wild, providing vicuna and guanaco newborns the best chance of survival through their first precarious day before temperatures plunge at night. These species live about twenty years and slightly longer in captivity.
It is far more likely that visitors who travel to Peru in the Andean regions will see huacaya alpacas than suris. Of the two varieties of alpacas, the huacaya is far more common, comprising ninety to ninety-five percent of the world’s total alpaca population. The two breeds may be distinguished by their coats. Without crimp, the prized hair of the suri hangs straight down from its body and feels like mohair. The huacaya’s coat appears fluffy and fuller. Most suri alpacas are white and are sheared less often than huacayas. Huacaya alpacas may be seen on Peru tours in almost two dozen hues, including white, brown, gray, black, reddish brown and multi-colored.
Alpacas congregate in small herds led by a male and tended by herders. Each herder’s alpacas can be distinguished by the piece of cloth tied to the animals’ ears. Instead of defecating in the same area where they graze, alpacas use a separate, common area. Like the vicuna, the alpaca communicates by making a variety of sounds and has superior hearing and vision.
Alpacas are big business worldwide. Most of the alpaca’s value is in its fleece, the narrower the strand of fleece, the softer and more expensive the fiber. Most alpaca goods are purchased in the United States. Lucky travelers on Peru tours will have a far wider selection of alpaca garments from which to choose and much better prices than at home.
Domesticated alpacas are exported both for pets and breeding, commercial-quality alpacas fetching a five-digit price. It was only in the last decade that Peru eased restrictions on the export of live animals. Alpacas are sheared every other year, up to five times during an animal’s life and slaughtered for meat at between ages ten and fourteen. For a time, Peruvian law decreed that alpacas could only be sheared, not slaughtered. Trade in alpaca meat resumed in 1995. Low fat and high protein, alpaca was once a popular meat in the Andean diet, though today most Peruvians prefer alpaca in a dried, salted form. Though alpacas are not endangered, population declines can lead to inbreeding which in turn reduces the quality of the fleece.
Llamas prefer high grassland habitats at elevations from 7,000 to 13,000 feet where visitors on Peru tours and other destinations will see them in herds. Domesticated llamas are less social than if they inhabited the wild and have adapted to the status of novelty farm animal and family pet far from their traditional roots in the harsh, cold highlands. The llama reaches maturity at about three years of age. Offspring are born surrounded by a protective group of females after a gestation of a bit less than a year. Some 2.5 million llamas inhabit the Andes, making them a common sight on South America tours, especially in Bolivia. The llama is not endangered.
Llamas may be various shades of white, black, brown, gray, red or a multi-colored hue. The animal’s fleece is far coarser than that of the alpaca or vicuna and therefore less expensive, yet suitable for a wider range of uses. The animal’s coarser outer-layer of fleece is made into durable woven products, from rugs to ropes, and the softer under-layer is made into clothing, usually outerwear garments such as scarves, hats, jackets and sweaters that make popular souvenirs of travel to Peru. Llama fleece may be obtained by brushing, shearing or clipping.
Two varieties of llamas exist, the kara and the chacos. The kara llama has the characteristic double coat of the llama but the chacos (or wooly) llama has only one coat from which a mixture of fibers is derived. Most llamas that visitors will see during their Peru tours and other Andean locations are the kara variety. Bred for its fleece, the huarizo is a hybrid species of a llama and an alpaca.
Low fat and mild tasting, llama meat is traditionally prepared by drying and salting it, called charque. The animal’s excrement is used as fertilizer and when dried, burned as fire fuel.
Vicunas live in semi-arid grasslands of the Andes on or near hillsides at 11,000 to 19,000 feet in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador in a range that has shrunk over the past several centuries. They can survive the extremes of temperatures found at these elevations thanks to soft fleece that traps warm air against their bodies. The vicuna uses its speed and exceptional eyesight to protect itself from its predators, the puma and Magellan fox, and communicates with its herd by emitting sounds appropriate to the situation.
Vicunas live in small herds overseen by one male in a fifteen to seventy-five acre area, delineated by the odor of dung deposited on the perimeter of their territory. Vicunas breed in March and April, giving birth after about eleven months of gestation. This makes February and March prime months to see frolicking newborns during your travel to Peru or Argentina tours. At about a year of age, young vicunas are forced out of the group to find another with which to mate and bond, forming singles groups in the interim.
Vicunas are various shades of golden brown to cinnamon with a white face and underside. Long hunted for its soft and lucrative fleece, South America’s vicuna populations are increasing from near extinction. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), about half of the world’s 350,000 vicunas inhabit Peru. Between 72,000 and 127,000 are found in Argentina, 63,000 in Bolivia, 17,000 in Chile and 2,700 in Ecuador. The herds of vicunas that once inhabited South America elsewhere have more or less been wiped out.
Unlike their larger relatives, vicunas can only be sheared once every two to three years. Neither do they take well to captivity. These two commercial inconveniences have led business enterprises to breed a hybrid between the domesticated alpaca and the vicuna, just as thousands of years ago the alpaca was bred from the vicuna. Called a paco-vicuna (or pacuna), the new species combines the two qualities that vicunas lack, a laid-back attitude and fleece that can be sheared annually. This mixing of nature and commerce is not appreciated by environmental scientists who fear that hybridization will further dilute the genetic purity of the remaining vicuna species.
After the Spanish invasion of guanaco habitat centuries ago, the specie’s population shrank from millions to thousands. Most of the continent’s remaining guanacos are found in the southerly regions, making them a much more common sight during travel to Patagonia than Peru Tours. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), of South America’s remaining 400,000 and 600,000 guanacos, almost all are found in Argentina with about 66,000 in Chile. Visitors to Torres del Paine National Park during their Chile tours and Tierra del Fuego National Park during travel to Argentina can expect to see many guanacos.
Spotting a herd of guanacos is a very special experience for visitors on Peru tours since it is believed that only 3,500 to 5,000 still inhabit the country. Though few guanacos are left in Bolivia and Paraguay, efforts are underway to re-populate the species in the Chaco ecosystem that borders the three countries. Guanacos once also inhabited Brazil and Uruguay.
Inhabiting puna, steppe, grasslands and shrub lands as well as Andean forests, guanacos can survive at elevations as high as 15,000 feet in more northerly countries and as low as sea level in Patagonia. Guanacos can withstand long periods of drought, surviving by deriving moisture from plants they eat, licking leaves, and by tolerating saltier water than most land species.
Guanacos are found in areas that have been converted to ranchland and so must share their territory and food supply with the millions of sheep raised in Patagonia and with cattle elsewhere. Guanacos get the leftovers, though farmers who must deal with the wild species inhabiting their fields would beg to differ. Some herds of guanacos migrate to warmer wetter climes. In many places, the guanaco also shares its habitat with pumas, its predator. Once an important source of protein for indigenous populations, guanacos today may only be slaughtered with government permission. The abundance of guanacos today makes the trade of guanaco fiber legal if the exporting country can certify that the source of the fiber is sustainable.
Except for winter when herds mix, guanaco groups consisting of one male and as many as two dozen females and their young, inhabit a territory of about 100 square miles. Young guanacos get kicked out of the herd after about a year and join up with others in the same boat, forming single gender groups. Older males travel solo. When guanacos mate and give birth depends on where the live. Gestation is about eleven months.
Though many reserves have been created in South America to protect the dwindling guanaco populations, guanacos will likely continue to face extinction in countries where their numbers are low since poaching is still a problem. Mortality of guanacos is also high because so few newborns survive to adulthood.
South America’s Camelids of Yore
Over the years, various evolutionary theories have been put forth. Because the guanaco appeared first in the fossil record, some believe that llamas, alpacas and vicunas all evolved from that species. Scientists believe that between ten and perhaps more than thirty million guanacos once roamed various regions of South America from northern Peru to Patagonia.
Indigenous tribes dating back to 4000 BC began domesticating the species. Llamas were either a mix between a vicuna and guanaco or were bred from guanacos. Scientists have theorized that the alpaca evolved from the llama or was bred as a mix between a vicuna and a llama after it was domesticated. It wasn’t until recently that DNA research enabled scientists to determine with certainty that the alpaca evolved from the vicuna.
All four species played an integral role in indigenous life throughout the Andes in both the practical and spiritual realms as will be apparent to visitors on Peru tours and those who travel to Argentina and other high-elevation destinations on the continent. Until Inca times, vicunas were hunted and killed. In the absence of sophisticated equipment, rounding up animals for slaughter was most easily accomplished by surrounding them and driving them off a cliff. The Incas declared the vicuna sacred, allowing the animals to be sheared but not killed. Aymara and Inca legends held that the indigestible material in camelid stomachs called bezoar was capable of warding off disease, could neutralize poison and bring good luck. Pelts were turned into various items, including shoes, tarps and coats. The meat of the camelids was eaten either cooked or dried and salted. Their dung was used as fuel. Llamas and alpacas were sacrificed during religious ceremonies. Llamas were buried alive with royalty like the rest of their prized possessions for use in the afterworld.
Man’s relationship with the South American camelids changed dramatically when the Spanish arrived on the continent in the 16th century. Colonists fenced range land to raise sheep, pushing the wild vicunas and guanacos out. To make use of vicuna fleece, colonists chose the expeditious route to profit from these wild, soft-haired creatures—slaughter. Populations of the wild camelid species began their precipitous declines. Modern governments have been working over the past half-century to undo the colonial history of the continent’s camelids, restoring and protecting the species, and finding ways to integrate the animals back into the lives of human populations. Thanks to these efforts, visitors who travel to Peru will see vicunas in abundance and many guanacos on Patagonia tours.
Far from the shoppers combing through alpaca merchandise in Lima and elsewhere during their travel to Peru, come February, the alpaca herders give thanks, thanks for their livelihood, thanks for their herds, thanks for the species. Rooted in indigenous traditions, the Hayarisqa ceremony is an annual event that takes place in the Andean herder communities.
According to the Aymara and Quechuan legends, the weavers of the Pacomarca Kingdom possessed the greatest weaving and embroidery skills. When the quality of the fleece began to deteriorate mysteriously, it is told that the Lord of Pacomarca took steps to separate the alpacas from the llamas to soften the alpaca fleece. The people believed that they would be rewarded or punished for how well they took care of their alpacas.
Consisting of much singing and imbibing, Hayarisqa begins in the evening and continues into the next day. The centerpiece of the event is the unveiling of sacred objects held by each family, among them, alpaca fleece, shells symbolizing the importance of water to the herds, and stones representing fertility and vitality. Coca is enjoyed by all members of the family as the ceremony progresses. By daybreak, the items in the sacred bundle have been reassembled, and the focus of Hayarisqa shifts to dancing, dining and drinking.
The chacu is an Inca tradition that has been resurrected in recent times, as a means to the temporarily capture the wild vicunas that roam free on the Andean hillsides of South America. Chacus are gaining in popularity as a return to indigenous ways. In conjunction with the chacu, some communities also hold events that attract visitors on Peru tours who might not otherwise travel to these small villages in out-of-the-way places. What began as an experiment in a few communities has today turned into hundreds of chacus taking place annually in Peru’s highland villages. Far fewer occur in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
Communities have evolved their own distinctive ceremonies around the chacu that express gratitude for the vicunas. During Inca times, to give thanks to Mother Earth (Pachamama) for providing vicuna fleece, a vicuna was sacrificed at the beginning of the chacu. Today, chacu ceremonies spare the animal. Some are preceded by a fertility ritual consisting of a symbolic wedding of two vicunas in which two animals must drink a mixture of each other’s blood before releasing the animals. Participants may present offerings.
Most chacus in Peru take place between November and May. In Lucanas, near the Pampa Galeras-Barbara D’Achille National Reserve, an International Vicuna Festival is held in June. Visitors on Peru tours here may watch the wild vicuna round-up that precedes the shearing and then participate in a celebration of music, dance and revelry that surrounds the event. Among the locations where chacus take place in Peru are: Huancayo, Ondores, Picotani, Rancas, Tambo Canahuas, Tupala and Tocra.
Fleece Crafts in Andean Cultures
In the Andes, gender roles in the knitting and weaving professions vary by culture and village. In some communities, as visitors who travel to Lake Titicaca will observe, the weavers are primarily men. Travelers on Machu Picchu tours who visit the hill town of Huilloc will see the woolen handicrafts of women. In many communities, the whole family learns to knit, often using bicycle spokes for needles. Children usually gain proficiency by age ten. This family occupation is a valued segment of the indigenous economy, passed down through generations.
The spinning of camelid fleece into yarn is ubiquitous in Andean cultures. Visitors on Peru tours in these mountainous villages will see first-hand the ingenuity and efficiency of those involved in these trades. Held under the spinner’s arm or tucked into clothing, the fleece is twirled into yarn on a small spindle. This step is accomplished while tending flocks, walking home from work or chatting with friends. It is also common to see villagers knitting throughout the day between high-activity seasons such as planting or the harvest.
The yarns, colors and patterns of alpaca handicrafts in the Andean countries vary geographically and culturally. Designs, some with special meaning, may depict flora, fauna and human figures. A dog motif knitted into a satchel is meant to prevent the money one may be carrying from being stolen. The chakana, the Inca cross, is a common design. Some designs show where a knitter is from or where the item was made. When the yarn is twisted in a certain way, in some villages, there is a belief that it can ward off evil spirits. This is why visitors during their travel to Peru in the Andes may see yarn worn around the wrist or ankle of pregnant women or church statuary.
Some patterns knitted into a woolen item have mythical meanings, of Gods, rebirth and what is sacred about the natural world. Visitors on Peru tours may be thinking about aesthetics as they pour over knitwear designs in a village market, but to local consumers, the zigzags or wavy lines may represent a passage in life’s voyage, its beginning or its end. In ancient times, knitted symbols were a form of prayer.
Protecting the Guanacos of Argentina
Besides the human problem, the guanaco’s other predator is the puma, a species that inhabits all the same regions except Tierra del Fuego, where it is too cold for the puma. In Argentina, guanacos have been able to survive on their own in far larger numbers than in other countries. In some places they overwhelm the landscape, causing problems for ranchers attempting to make a living by raising domesticated stocks of other species, primarily sheep. Most of the lands that guanacos inhabit in Argentina are held privately. Here many landowners find the species more a nuisance than endearing, just as protected deer species have come to be viewed in some ranching areas of North America.
The situation has led the government to experiment with “sustainable management” to make the shearing of fleece profitable as is being done in other South American countries to preserve their vicuna populations. In some areas, the Argentine government has permitted the vicuna conservation technique called a chacu, an Inca tradition, to be applied to guanacos. A chacu consists of corralling the animals, shearing them and then releasing them back into the wild. It remains to be seen whether the strategy is effective, though at least in Southern Patagonia where the species is so abundant, the technique may at least help to ameliorate the farmer vs. guanaco problem. These programs are being closely monitored to ensure that they don’t have the opposite effect, endangering the populations that the policy is intended to protect.
International environmental organizations have aided Argentina’s conservation work by raising funds to purchase land, by working with the local governments to minimize disturbance to guanaco habitat, by encouraging commercial entities to circumvent guanaco migration areas and by documenting movement of the species through some regions. The Wildlife Conservation Society, is working to establish migratory corridors between La Payunia Provincial Reserve in Mendoza Province and the Auca Mahuida Provincial Reserve in Neuquén Province. In Chubut Province, a private 15,000-acre reserve called the Ranch of Hopes Wildlife Refuge (Estancia la Esperanza) has been established by the British environmental organization, World Land Trust, and Fundacion Patagonia Natural, an Argentine conservation group, where guanacos and other species roam free. The provincial government has designated the area as a protected wildlife refuge. With so many guanacos roaming the Andes here, visitors who travel to Argentina for a Patagonia hiking adventure or take Argentina tours to the country’s western national parks will likely encounter the species.
Guanaco Reserves of Argentina
Though the species also once roamed the Chaco region east of the Andes in northern Argentina, it is almost extinct there today. Guanacos that inhabit northern Argentina are found in the west, mostly in national parks. Guanacos inhabit some but not all areas of 158,000-acre Los Cardones National Park in Salta Province, Talampaya National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in La Rioja Province, 180,000-acre El Leoncito National Park in San Juan Province, 182,000-acre Sierra de las Quijades National Park in San Luis Province and 188,000-acre Lihue Calel National Park in La Pampa Province. Further south, visitors on Argentina tours will find guanacos occupying vicuna territory such as in the Laguna Brava Provincial Reserve in La Rioja Province and San Guillermo National Park in San Juan Province.
Three-quarters of the country’s guanacos inhabit the Patagonian steppe found in the country’s southern areas, among them some popular ecotourism destinations for those who travel to Argentina. In Neuquén Province, guanacos inhabit the eastern portion of immense Nahuel Huapi National Park in the park’s higher elevations. Further south, visitors on Patagonia hiking tours will also see guanacos on the Belgrano peninsula and Cerro San Lorenzo north of Perito Moreno National Park as well as on the eastern side of the park itself, in the steppe regions of popular Los Glaciares National Park and in the land areas of the coastal marine park, Monte Leon National Park in Santa Cruz Province. Most of Patagonia’s guanacos inhabit the southern tip of Argentina in Tierra del Fuego where Tierra del Fuego National Park is a popular summer grazing grounds for the species.
In addition to Argentina’s national parks, guanacos are found in a number of other protected areas of southern Andean steppe. In Mendoza Province, these locations include Aconcagua Provincial Park, the area around Mt. Tupungato and La Payunia Provincial Reserve that spans over a million acres and is home to between 11,000 and 15,000 guanacos; and in Neuquén Province, Auca Mahuida Provincial Reserve, Domuyo Provincial Park which is also home to vicunas, and further south, El Tromen Provincial Park.
In coastal Southern Patagonia, another place to see guanacos is mammoth 1.6 million-acre Meseta de Somuncura Reserve which spans Rio Negro and Chubut provinces. Most tourists on Argentina tours who travel to Patagonia via coastal Chubut Province’s Valdes Peninsula include the destination in their itinerary primarily for its marine wildlife, including the Southern Right whale and orcas. On the peninsula itself, visitors will see guanacos on a private 15,000-acre reserve located there. Guanacos also live in the 124,700-acre Ria Deseado Nature Reserve, a popular destination for visitors on Patagonia tours who come here to explore the wetland habitat in Santa Cruz Province.
Setting aside reserves safeguards guanacos from hunting and over-grazing by domesticated farm animals, yet the eco-system that guanacos inhabit is fragile, and the species cannot be saved from all threats. Though protected in the 2,965-acre Cabo dos Bahias Provincial Reserve in Chabut Province, located 165 miles southeast of Trelew, in 2000, most of the guanacos there died of parasites and starvation.
Guanacos on Tour in Argentina
The most likely place to encounter guanacos anywhere in Argentina is during Patagonia tours. Guanacos mate between November and February in the southern regions of Argentina and most are born in mid-December or January. This is when visitors schedule their Patagonia hiking tours, so baby guanacos have been the most the most adorable photo of many a Patagonia vacation.
Four of Southern Explorations’ trips travel to Tierra del Fuego where most of the Argentina Patagonia guanacos reside, the thirteen-day Best of Argentina trip, the fourteen and sixteen-day versions of the Australis Cruise and Patagonia Hiking trip and the twenty-one day Full Patagonia tour. All of these trips also travel to one or more additional destinations in Argentina Patagonia that are prime guanaco habitat. In the more southerly regions of Argentina Patagonia, these include Los Glaciares National Park and in Northern Patagonia, Nahuel Huapi National Park and the Valdes Peninsula, though while on the peninsula during our Full Patagonia trip or tour extension, travelers usually have their cameras pointed at the Magellanic penguins and many other marine wildlife species.
Sufficient numbers of guanacos remain to make them a common sight if one chooses to travel to Chile as well. Eight of the Argentina-Chile combo Patagonia trips that we offer visit areas in both countries where guanacos may be spotted. You may even encounter a few guanacos if you take one of our Antarctic cruises that travel to the Falkland Islands along the way, the sixteen to twenty-four day Antarctic Explorer trips.