Upsurge In Poaching Is Threatening South America’s Iconic Vicuña

The vicuña is in danger of becoming the latest victim of extinction due to poaching, according to a special interest group set up to protect the animal. The animal is highly sought after for its wool with those after a quick buck prepared to kill the animal rather than farm it. This relative of the llama is one of only two South American camelids and found in the highlands of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru.

Benito Gonzalez, a University of Chile zoologist and chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s South American Camelid Special Group, says it is estimated that 5000 of the animals have been killed recently, however that figure could be “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Realizing that the species was in danger of extinction, conservationists in the late 1980’s outlawed unofficial trade in their wool and introduced community-led efforts to farm and shear vicuñas.

Cristian Bonacic, of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, says, “The program started quite well, but for the past 15 years we’ve discovered a series of fundamental problems. For starters, as soon as limited legal trade in vicuña wool was established, it opened the door for laundering of illegal counterparts. As poaching ramped up, some communities gave up on sustainable shearing after receiving threats from illegal hunters. Others, including quinoa farmers in Bolivia, view vicuñas as a pest and menace to their crops, and turn a blind eye to the killings.”

Daniel Elias Maydana, a technical advisor for the National Association of Vicuña Fiber Producers in Bolivia and northern Argentina, says,  “The money obtained from managing vicuñas is important, but it’s certainly not sufficient to lift families out of poverty.”

In 2014, Peru was exporting 10 tons of vicuña fiber to Italy, for which all Peruvian communities combined received a grand total of $250,000. “That is ridiculously small,” Bonacic says, adding that a single coat, which uses 4.4 pounds of wool, can cost $50,000. The fashion industry’s revenue from just five garments can equal the entire earnings for the whole of Peru’s vicuña-producing communities. “With limited support and incentive to develop legal vicuña use, there is sometimes more financial gain from illegal use.”

Current Vicuña populations hover around 400,000 to 500,000, but their numbers have remained stagnant or have declined over the past two decades, as in Chile.

“It’s true that populations are large, but they’re far less than the 7 to 8 million that we should have,” Bonacic says. “I seriously think that if poaching continues to increase, some populations may go extinct.”  

Poaching gangs with ties to cocaine trafficking are involved according to Obdulio Menghi, president of the Biodiversity Foundation-Argentina.

“In Argentina, there are drug groups coming in from Bolivia who pay their way with illegal fiber from vicuñas,” he says  “It’s difficult to know how deep and dangerous these poaching gangs have become.But drug trafficking is growing in the area.”

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