The ethics, welfare and conservation value of community-based sustainable use of live Vicuña , Chile

The vicuña – a relative of the llama found only on the Andean altiplano – is one of the few wild animals in the world to have been used for its wool without domestication. The ancient Inca considered vicuñas sacred and created a unique way of obtaining their exceptionally fine wool through a capture system to shear them live every four years. Villagers would march side by side across the Andean plain, closing in on herds of fast-moving vicuñas. Shearing produced enough wool for Inca ceremonial garments. Sadly, soon after colonisation, the Inca system collapsed and the hunting of vicuña caused a population crash across their vast range.

Extinction of the vicuña was almost certain by the 1960s, until an international effort succeeded in stopping illegal wool traffic. Slowly, the species began to recover. The vicuña was back from the brink of extinction, but demand for their wool remained. Following 30 years of effective protection, the vicuñas began to be utilised for live shearing once more, under national and international regulation. However, the consequences of shearing were little studied and the systems of capture lacked standards, raising concerns for both animal welfare and conservation. Inexperienced handlers treated the vicuñas as if they were domestic animals, causing stress. It was clear that an ethical and scientific approach to wild vicuña shearing was needed urgently.

Chilean conservation scientist, Dr. Cristián Bonacic, has studied vicuña for over 20 years. His work demonstrates that humane shearing can be a feasible way to use wild vicuñas sustainably. The vicuña presents a real opportunity to bring economic gain to indigenous communities whilst presenting an alternative to the domestic livestock that overgraze the high altitude plateaus. Since 1995, Cristián has worked on a range of international projects to develop practical methods for vicuna management. With his wildlife research group, Fauna Australis, he is developing standards for wild capture alongside Aymara indigenous communities, conducting training in Argentina and Chile. This innovative project is helping resurrect an ancient system of species management that could provide a model for conservation across the Andes.

Key facts:

  • Following the conquest of Peru, vicuña wool became highly desired by Europeans.
  • In the 1900s, thousands of vicuñas were slaughtered causing a population decline from 2.5 million to a few thousand scattered across the Andes.
  • Vicuña wool is finer than cashmere and in Europe achieves prices of up to £300 per kilo.

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