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Peruvian project brings vicuna back from the brink

Eighty per cent of Peru's livestock is raised in the puna, or arid tableland, which comprises 6.5 million hectares of natural mountain pastures. But the zone's low temperatures mean that plants there grow only four or five months of the year and a few hours a day, and that frosts are frequent. Overgrazing, which these conditions aggravate, further destroys this already fragile environment. The solution could lie in an indigenous wild animal, the graceful vicuna.

The vicuna is an American cameloid, of small stature, like a deer. It can run long distances at 47 km/h at altitudes of 4 500 metres above sea level without tiring. Unlike sheep hooves, which cut the hard soil and contribute to erosion, the foot of the vicuna is covered with soft pads, which allow it to hold fast on the rocky surfaces and which prevent damage to the soil. Moreover, while sheep or goats uproot the plants they eat, which causes the land to crumble and turn to dust, which then blows away, the vicuna cuts them with its lower incisors that grow continually and are covered with hard enamel. Finally, its adaptation to the environment of the Andean altiplano is such that the newborn vicuna can run soon after birth and weighs 15 per cent of the mother's weight.

The Incas knew how to exploit wild resources. In the year 1500, the vicuna population was estimated at 2 million head. The indigenous people joined by the thousands to form a sort of human fence to corral the chaco - wild vicunas and huanacos, which they caught and sheared or slaughtered. According to the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the brilliant mestizo historian of his lost culture, they did not believe that the Sun God or Earth Goddess created wild animals to be useless, and the vicuna and the other cameloids, the llama and alpaca, were useful indeed.

It was its coat that brought the vicuna to the brink of extinction, in spite of the king of Spain and his viceroys, Simon Bolivar, the governments of independence, and, in this century, international treaties (the vicuna is also found on the altiplanos of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile). The king of Spain signed a royal mandate in 1577, shortly after the conquest, prohibiting hunting the vicuna; Bolivar, in 1825, repeated that prohibition, and over the decades there have been more than 15 decrees and conventions. Nevertheless, the vicuna continued to be hunted for its fleece. If we calculate that in 1500 there were 2 million, in 1957, 250 000 head were counted, and ten years later in 1967, there were only 10 000, which declined to only 2 647 in 1969. In 1965, the creation of the Pampa Galera National vicuna Reserve fortunately allowed the trend to reverse itself in Peru and in 1982 the vicuna population had risen to 20 893.

Building on the above-mentioned reserve, a project has been under way since 1980 - the Project for the Rational Utilization of the vicuna - involving 963 peasant communities and 48 150 families. The basic idea is to make better use of the Andean pastures by having vicunas graze together with domestic animals, or allocating them for grazing of vicunas and other wild animals. The vicunas would be captured every two years, in a chaco, to register them, mark them, shear them, and set them free again. The aims of the project have been to repopulate the puna with 3 million vicunas (on 15 million hectares), to develop a technology adequate to the ecological and socio-economic situation of the region, to increase profitability of marginal mountain lands by means of vicuna-raising, to advise and financially support the peasant communities by means of Government action, in the utilisation the vicuna on the lands, to promote the domestic processing and the exportation of vicuna products, and, once guaranteed the survival of the species is secure, to develop a model for the utilization of national wildlife. The experience of the Pampa Galeras Reserve proves that those objectives are possible, since, although the vicuna is still threatened in the rest of the country, the Reserve is today facing the problem of overpopulation, since the animals are reproducing.

Evidently, the main concern of the proponents of the project is preservation of the species, which still has not been universally assured, more than the industrialization of the resource. But they also work for the future, studying the characteristics of fleece, hide and meat of the vicuna, with a view to its possible exportation.

Peruvian sheep can yield up to eight kilos of meat and 4.5 of wool per year, but in the puna the yield is only half the meat and half a kilo of wool. The cameloids - the competition - comprise not only the vicuna, the llama, and the alpaca but also the hybrids. The cross between a female alpaca and a male llama is the huarizo, which has a heavier fleece, and that of female alpaca and male vicuna, or vice versa, is the pacovicuna, with a very fine fibre, superior to that of the alpaca. A vicuna in its useful life can be sheared five times and its coat has a value 20 times that of the wool of a good sheep and 10 times that of alpaca wool. Moreover, there are the hide and the meat.

The meat, like that of all wild herbivores, is excellent. The vicuna is a great runner and its muscles are red and succulent. Insofar as its population is increasing, the vicuna can be a high-quality food for the local inhabitants or offered to foreign palates in search of exotic foods to make them forget the usual animals stuffed with hormones and artificial fodders. As for the hide, it is very small Just one square metre) and covered with scars, as is normal for wild animals, and it is too thin for shoes, gloves, or coats.

But it has great resistance to tearing and a very smooth grain; tanned with chrome or with vegetal processes, dyed, and finished, it could be used to manufacture purses or high-quality morocco products.

But the essential advantage of the vicuna lies in its wool. Its fleece is composed of a mixture of fine fibres, lower down, and thicker and coarser in the upper coat, vicuna wool is composed exclusively of the fine fibres of the lower layer of the fleece, which, with a thickness of 12.1 microns, are like those of the angora rabbit (that of the cashmere goat has a diameter of 15-16 microns and of the merino sheep 17-18). This permits weaving garments of vicuna that are far softer and more workable than those made with other famous fibres.

Moreover, the yield, or the percentage of washed fibre to the original weight before treatment, is 87 per cent, and far surpasses that of the sheep and the alpaca. The buyer pays for fleece and not impurities, but also intensive treatment with alkaline chemical substances, which damage the fibres during processing, can be avoided.

The project hopes to achieve a density of one vicuna per five hectares and a rate of growth of 20 per cent, similar to that obtained on the Pampa Galeras Reserve. It would mean - if means of control and conservation are applied - obtaining some 3 million head by the year 2000. Already some $30 million annually could be earned from the vicuna, and the project would be self-sufficient, since the processing of 375 000 vicunas a year could give 7.5 million kg of meat, at $1.00 each, 375 000 hides, at $30 each, and 75 000 kg of fibre, at the current price. Investment in the project, for its part, was calculated to establish goals (in 1977) of $4.4 million, half of which from abroad.

Guillermo Almeyra