Building capacities for wild vicuña conservation and sustainable management in the Argentinian Puna VICAM, Argentina

Vicuñas are llama-like animals and an emblematic species of one of the major high altitude arid ecosystems – the Altiplano. The Altiplano is the most extensive area of high plateau on earth outside of Tibet and lies in the central Andes, occupying parts of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

The vicuña is prized for its fine fleece and was almost exterminated by hunting, however, after strict conservation, several populations have recovered. The challenge today is to encourage sustainable use of this wild species that both brings genuine benefits to local people and succeeds in not harming wild populations, either through mismanagement or genetic corruption through domestication.

An Argentinian vicuña expert, Bibiana leads the VICAM project based at the University of Lujan, Buenos Aires. She aims to build the capacity of Andean communities for conservation and management of wild vicuñas. Through the project, communities will be able to make ‘Chakkus’ (prehispanic capture) in order to obtain fibre from the animals through shearing without killing them, followed by immediate release. Bibiana believes strongly in a precautionary approach that aims to balance livelihood, indigenous knowledge, economics and environment. Environmental education is a key component of the project and will be achieved though work in schools to teach the next generation about the vicuña, its habitat and importance to local people within a strong scientific framework.

Vicuñas are in a risk situation, not in danger of extinction, but in danger of losing its wild species essence and being made into a “commodity”. Bibiana is determined to transform the vicuña grazing ‘problem’, where the animals are seen as competition for domesticated livestock, into a ‘solution’ where both local enterprise and conservation can benefit. It is an ambitious project in which she also aims to modify a national bill that, if passed, could endanger the future of the species by grouping domesticated vicuñas and llamas as “camelids” that can be exploited outside the altiplano in a ranching scheme.

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