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.