Vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) are wild South American relatives of camels and possibly the wild ancestor to domesticated alpacas. Inca rulers prized their soft, warm wool, and today coats made from vicuna wool can go for as much as US$21,000 and suits for US$46,000, as Dave Coggins wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2013. Only silk seems to rival vicuña wool. But, this growing popularity is becoming a serious threat to wild populations and any humans trying to protect them.
Herders in villages like Espite make their living off of rounding up and shearing vicuñas, explains Kraul. The modern governments of Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina have essentially modernized the Inca system of harvesting vicuna fur. The governments own the animals and grant permission to indigenous family groups to herd them.
However, high demand for vicuña garments in Europe and Asia has driven the price of vicuña wool up to near $1000 per 2.2 pounds (or one kilogram). Generating that much wool requires shearing five animals, writes Kraul. Traditional herders sheer the animals every two years, and each animal produces around 200 grams or 7 ounces of wool. Usually, herding families pull in about 44 pounds per year or about $20,000 annually.
Lured by the cash and fewer police forces at high elevations, poachers have resorted to killing and skinning vicuñas and selling them in coastal markets. Their actions pose a threat to not only the wildlife, but also local economies and humans attempting to protect the animals. Karul reports that In January, poachers killed two Chilean policemen who detained at a roadblock:
The slayings of the two Chilean officers in January were not isolated violence. Two men were arrested this month in the northern Argentine city of Catamarca after shooting at police who were about to stop their truck loaded with 75 pounds of vicuna fleeces. Chilean police near Arica were also involved in a gunfight with poachers in May 2014 after seizing 70 vicuna hides.
Back in the 1960s, vicuña wool had risen to a similar level of popularity, especially among the rich and famous. Overhunting cut Peru’s population from a million to 16,000, according to Coggins. Today, because their population has significantly risen since then, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists them as of least concern.
If poaching continues, vicuñas could be headed back toward that fate.