Discover the World’s Finest Wool – The Vicuna

The Vicuna

The 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.


This wool in the old times was much celebrated and was only worn by the royalty of Incas and was not permitted to be worn by the commoners. Today times might have changed, but this wool, which is used in making apparel such as shawls, suits, coats, and even home furnishings like warm and cozy blankets and throws still stands very 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- Vicuna, a Camelid. – Excited? Let’s begin!

Vicuna - Princess of the Andes
Vicuna - Princess of the Andes

Vicuña’s Description


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.

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

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. 

Vicunas in Bolivia
Vicunas in Bolivia

Breeding of the Vicuña’s

 

Vicunas 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.

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

The young Vicunas 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.

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 these animals 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 Vicuna

Distribution area map of the vicuna

Vicuña’s History and Conservation

 

Because of their precious wool, the vicunas have been hunted and sought for since the days of the Incas. However, the Inca people did not capture this animal to kill it; instead, they were after it for its wool, which they used for weaving certain types of ritual clothing.

But when the Spanish explorers won over the Inca people in the 16th century, they started hunting Vicunas without care as a result of which their numbers dwindled. Where before becoming a target by Spanish people, as many as several million Vicunas habituated different parts of the Earth, after this instance, their numbers decreased to less than 6000.

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 was the vicuña not domesticated by the Incas?

The fleece of the vicuñas is of outstanding quality. Why were these animals not already domesticated by the 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 camel family. The domesticated lama probably descends from the guanaco. Does the alpaca also descend from the guanaco, or is the vicuna its ancestor?

One theory is that the alpaca is mainly descended from the guanaco, but a little vicugna 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.

The Altiplano

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.

Vicuña’s Wool

 

The fleece, which covers the body of the Vicunas, is one of the most exceptional qualities of wool that you can find across the globe.

One thing that makes this wool so much popular amongst the people is its warmth. This wool is also durable and resilient, but one should keep in mind that it displays high sensitivity to chemicals, why it is generally used in its natural colors.

Another factor that makes this wool so unique is the wool’s softness and lightness.

For the very complex shearing process, the wild animals are rounded up from national parks and large enclosures.

The fine undercoat is carefully separated from the topcoat – however, only 150 grams of wool is gathered per animal in this traditional catching method, which the locals call “chacu” and is carried out every two years.

Why is Vicuña Wool so valuable?

The vicuna wool is valuable because the Vicunas do not produce wool very quickly. It takes them years to grow back sheared wool because of which it becomes a challenge for herders to collect this wool in large quantity. As a result, the wool becomes a rarity.

Moreover, Vicunas like their cousins are not domesticated, and they were nearly extinct back in the 1960s, with their population being reduced to low as 6500s. After that, however, the Peruvians have made an effort to preserve their national animals, so that their population is currently increasing again.

How much does it 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 wool 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

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.” It 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.

Thank you for reading about The Vicuña  

What do you think about this fantastic animal? We are very much interested in reading from you – leave us a comment.

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