Discover the World’s Finest Wool – The Vicuna

The Vicuna

The shy Vicuña, the most elegant and smallest of South America’s camelids, has been declared a “national treasure” worthy of protection in Peru. Only a few years ago, this unique creature, considered sacred in ancient Peru, was threatened with extinction.

The soft vicuna wool was once considered the cloth of Gold by the Incas. It is one of the most favored fabrics among the people residing in the colder regions of the Andes because of its unique softness and its impressive ability to retain heat.

Vicuña - The princess of the Andes

The Vicuña is a gift from God. The former ruler of the Incas – Manco Cápac, the son of the sun, bequeathed to his people the llama, the alpaca, the guanaco and the vicuña – with one condition: The Guanaco and Vicuña had to remain untamed.

The Incas complied, but the Vicuña could not be completely domesticated anyway. So only every four years were the animals caught to shear them. Up to 30,000 people participated in these ceremonies, the “Chaccus.”

Outside of this large-scale ritual “hunt,” the killing of Vicuñas was punishable by death.

The Noble Wool spun from the hair of the Vicuña was very famous in ancient times. It was worn only by the royal Incas and was not allowed for the common people.

Today, times may have changed, but this wool, which is used to make clothing such as scarves, suits, coats and warm and cozy blankets and throws, is still incredibly valuable.

Hence today, we will discuss in detail this wool and the story of this unique animal – who is the source for the most exclusive wool- Vicuña, a Camelid. – Excited? Let’s begin!

Describing the Vicuña

The Vicuna is the smallest amongst the Camelidae family and has a shoulder height of 90 cm and a weight of about 110 pounds. It has a long neck but a small head as compared to its body. Its eyes and ears are also small and prominent. 

The color of its fur is light brown above against the off-white color of its wool below. A patch of longer hair covers its throat and chest and protects it against freezing temperatures of the high altitudes.

Vicuña herd running through altiplanio lakes - ATACAMA - by 4x4 Expedicionários

Vicuña's Characteristics

Vicuna is a very graceful and soft mammal that resides in Western South America along with other members of the Camelidae family like the Camels, Llamas, Alpacas, Guanaco, etc.


These animals are covered by a fine and warm coat that varies in color and protects them against cold temperatures. The vision and sense of hearing in these animals are better developed as compared to their sense of smell.


When these animals sense any danger around themselves, they emit a high, clear whistle to alert their herds.

 

Vicunas are wild and graze on low grasses and have a likeness to ruminate while resting. They usually travel in small female bands where a male vicuna leads them and protects them and their territory against any likely intruders.


The males that are incapable of doing so are forced to live a solitary life, or they join other males to form bachelor groups


A single young Vicuna that is born in February. A young vicuna is born 11 months after mating. It will then stay with its mother for at least ten months after birth, after which it begins to move freely on its own. 

 

Vicunas are also excellent communicators, and they use body postures like signaling with their ear and tail placements and other small movements. These animals are also very noisy and are in the habit of frequently spitting like all lamoids.

Another interesting fact about them is that these animals use the communal dung heaps to mark their territorial boundaries.

Vicuna at the Lagoon of Miscanti
The heart-shaped lagoon Miscanti is located at 4140 meters in the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile and is known for its dark blue color.

Lake Miscanti is an essential biotope of the National Reserve Los Flamencos. On its shores, flamingos and numerous other rare Altiplanic birds are nesting. Because of its unique scenic beauty, it is a destination for many thousands of tourists every year.
Vicuna at the lagoon of Miscanti

Breeding of the Vicuña’s

Vicuñas reach sexual maturity at around two years of age. In the Andean regions, the mating season extends over March and April.

Copulation can last up to ten minutes. After a gestation period of almost twelve months, the female gives birth to a young animal in a sheltered place, with a birth weight of four to six kilograms.

A baby Vicuña is called crias or a fawn.

The female gives birth to her young in a standing position and carefully licks her young baby after birth. The female Vicuña also eats the afterbirth.

The young Vicuñas can walk shortly after birth and follow their mother to the herd. The suckling period is about ten months. However, the young animals eat solid food at an early stage.

After reaching sexual maturity, the young are chased out of the group by the male. They join other groups or establish their own group. Vicuñas can reach the age of 15 to 20 years in the wild. In captivity, an age of up to 25 years is also possible.

 

Vicuña’s Distribution

The vicunas can be found in the central portion of the Andes Mountains in South American countries like Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, and Chile.

Distribution area map of the vicuna

These animals prefer to reside in places that are semiarid and are at an elevation of 9,850 to 15,100 feet.


In the day time Vicuñas spend their time in one feeding territory, and just as the night begins to fall, they move back to their highly elevated areas to fall asleep. 


The blood of the Vicuñas has peculiarities that make life at such heights possible. Other mammals quickly run out of breath at such lofty heights.

In the past, the Vicuñas had a wider distribution area, possibly as far as Ecuador. They were almost annihilated by human hunting. Fossils of Vicuñas have also been found in coastal regions.

The habitat of Vicuñas was not always restricted to areas in the high mountains. Only when the Vicuñas were displaced from their original distribution areas by other animals, adaptation to high altitudes became important. 

← Distribution Area of the Vicuñas

Vicuña’s History and Conservation

Because of their precious wool, Vicuñas were hunted and sought after since the days of the Incas. However, the Incas did not capture this animal to kill it, but only for its fine wool, which they used to weave certain ritual garments.


But when the Spanish explorers won over the Inca people in the 16th century, the Spanish started hunting Vicuñas without care, and as a result of which their numbers dwindled. While there were about 1.5 million Vicuñas in the Andes at the time of the Incas, their numbers declined to a number of only 6000 alive – by 1965.

Since then, however, as a result of conservation measures, populations have recovered rapidly, so that today there are about 350,000 Vicuñas worldwide. Peru has the largest number of Vicuñas with about 218,000 animals from an estimation report in 2016.


In the 1960s, the Vicuñas were almost extinct, which is why they were included in the appendix of the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1975 and thus protected.

Since then, trade has been subject to strict regulations.

Most of the Vicuña wool used today continues to come from Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, and Chile, where all animals live in the wild.

Why the Vicuña was NOT domesticated by the Incas?

The fleece of the Vicuñas is of outstanding quality. Why were these animals not already domesticated by the native Indians?

The reason for the failure of attempts to domesticate Vicuñas seems to be the mating behavior of these animals. Before the actual mating, a complicated mating ritual is performed. This mating ritual is inhibited or prevented by captivity.

Therefore Vicuñas in captivity rarely have offspring. Llamas and alpacas have similar mating rituals. However, they are much less complex.

The Vicuña was not considered domesticatable by the Incas. However, since pre-Columbian times, wild herds have been rounded up and shorn every 2-5 years.

The shorn animals were then set free again. (The Chaccu Ritual)

Is the vicuña the ancestor of the alpaca?

There are various theories about the relationship of the Camelid Family. The domesticated Llama probably descends from the Guanaco.

Does the alpaca also descend from the Guanaco, or is the Vicuña its ancestor?

One theory is that the alpaca is mainly descended from the Guanaco, but a little Vicuñas was also crossed in.

The second theory considers the vicuna to be the ancestor of the Alpaca, although genetic material from the Guanaco was added later.

Close up of young Vicuna

The Altiplano is a drainage-free plateau in southeastern Peru and western Bolivia between the two chains of the West and East Andes.

The plateau averages 12000 feet. In the north is Lake Titicaca, the largest high mountain lake in the world, from which the Altiplano extends about 1,000 km to the south.

It includes treasures such as Salar Uyuni – the largest salt flat in the world – and Laguna Colorada, famous for its numerous flamingos.

The Altiplano or Andean Plateau, in West-Central South America

The precious wool of the Vicuña’s

The fleece that covers the body of vicuñas is of an exceptional quality that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Vicuña wool is particularly fine. How fine fiber is can be measured with the unit of measurement micron? One micron is equal to one-thousandth of a millimeter in diameter.

Vicuña or Vikunja wool has a diameter of just 12 microns – for comparison, the diameter of the finest cashmere wool is 14-21 microns. Conventional sheep wool has a minimum diameter of 30 microns.

It is thanks to this fineness that you will never feel any annoying scratching when wearing Vikunja clothing.

Vicuña wool is also very durable and resistant and warms particularly well. However, one should keep in mind that it is very sensitive to chemicals, which is why it is generally used in its natural colors.

Wild animals are rounded up from national parks and large enclosures for the very laborious shearing process. The fine undercoat is carefully separated from the topcoat – however, only 150 grams of wool per animal are obtained in this traditional trapping method.

The Native Indians and local people call this ritual  “The Chaccu” – which is carried out every two years.

Why is Vicuña Wool so valuable?

Vicuña wool is valuable because vicuñas do not produce wool very quickly. It takes years for them to completely regrow shorn wool. Therefore, it is impossible to collect this wool in large quantities. As a result, this wool is a rarity.

Also, like their cousins the Guanacos, Vicunas are not domesticated, and they were nearly extinct in the 1960s when their population declined to only 6500 animals.

Since then, however, Peruvians have made efforts to preserve their national animal, and their population is currently increasing again.

How much does it cost Vicuña Wool cost?

The low yield per shear of only a few ounces also determines the high price. The light brown hair from the back is still a little cheaper than the white hair from the belly!

Dying or bleaching is not possible with Vicuña Wool, as the quality of the fibers could otherwise suffer. The extremely rare Albino Vicuñas are especially exclusive.

The price of the raw material is up to 15 $ per ounce, which corresponds to a cost per kilo of around 530 $. After washing, sorting, and spinning, the price rises to 10,000 $.  So it is quite clear:

Vicuña Wool is the most exclusive natural fiber in the world!

Now it should be clear to everyone that Vicunas are a protected and valuable species, and the wool that only a few people can collect from these animals is of the same value as Gold for them and considered as the most exclusive yarn for high-end fashion

Traditional Weaving Mill in Buenos Aires, Argentina -Vicuna Wool
Traditional weaving mill in in Buenos Aires with Vicuna wool
Traditional weaving mill in in Buenos Aires with Vicuna Fibers.

Vicuña - Animal Welfare

Animal protection is a top priority for Vicuñas – there are no domesticated herds; all animals live in the wild. Since the Indios, who are responsible for shearing, are performing this traditional act for centuries, they are very skillful and do not use a stretching bench to fix the animals.

At the same time, the Vicuñas are examined and vaccinated by veterinarians to ensure their survival and to further increase the herds. About 1.5 million Vicuñas were living in the Andes during the time of the Indios. Today, we are still far from these numbers.

If you should ever be interested in buying this exclusive wool, then you should pay attention to the label. There must be the note “legally sheared.” 

This indicates that the vicuna wool comes from controlled projects. If this is not the case, it is better to avoid the product.

CITES lists the Vicuña in “Appendices I and II

Trade with animals and plants listed in “Appendix I” is completely prohibited. The species listed in Appendix II may be traded under special circumstances: Import and export permits are required, and proof of harmlessness to the population must be provided.

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