What is a Vicuña?
By Phil Switzer
The vicuña has roamed the Andes for thousands of years. It is the wild ancestor of the alpaca. The vicuña manages to be both majestic and delicate at the same time standing proud, but having beautiful and fine features. The vicuña typically weighs between 90 and 110 lbs. It has a light colored, longer fibered bib on its chest and very little leg wool. It also only has a small amount of head wool and a thin deer like head, with large and protruding eyes that allow it to see in a much broader range than an alpaca.
The vicuña have some of the finest fleece in the world but it grows very slowly compared to an alpaca. The vicuñas' micron count (width of a single strand) is 8 to 13 microns, whereas most alpacas are in the 20 to 32 micron range. The vicuñas soft light golden/beige color has actually created its own color name. You will sometimes find clothes in "vicuña" color, but have no vicuña fiber in them. Vicuña fiber is so rare that its value has always been very high. In fact, the demand was so high that after the Spanish conquest of South America (1532), the vicuña was killed for its pelt. By the late 1960's the animal was nearly extinct and was put on the Endangered Species List.
Thanks to strong conservation efforts by Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina the vicuña population has blossomed and has been moved down to the Threatened status in some areas. The concerned governments have since sanctioned traditional limited wild roundups (called Chacus) by the natives to shear the vicuñas. After the shearing the vicuñas are released to the wild. The fleece is then sold to certain manufacturers to produce cloth and ultimately garments. No fiber for native use is made available in this system all is collected by the government and sold to the qualified mill. The government returns part of the monies back to the villages that participate in the Chacu, as well as some money going to conservation efforts.
In behavioral terms, the vicuña is a vigorous pacer that has many wild responses and is difficult to train. The alpaca is quite different in that it stays mostly in sedentary herds and is easily trainable. Simply put the alpaca has been domesticated and the vicuña has not - in fact, the alpaca is probably the domesticated vicuña.