Bozeman Daily Chronicle
June 20, 2000
In the foothills of the Peruvian Andes lives the smallest member of the camelid family, the vicuña. Wandering the mountains, these cousins of the llama boast coppery cinnamon fleeces on top and a nape of white hair slipping down the front of their chest. Vicuña hair is the finest and arguably warmest natural fiber in the world. For much of its history, that hair has been the vicuña’s curse as poaching led to the animal’s near demise. In the last couple decades though, the curse has become a blessing in disguise. The vicuña’s story is a testament to what changing the rules of the game can do for conservation.
Ever since the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World and displaced the Incas of South America, vicuña numbers have suffered a precipitous decline. The animal’s valuable fleece led to a slaughter of the species. Efforts to protect vicuña as far back as 1777 proved ineffective in stopping the animals’ decline as poachers were all too willing to disregard restrictive laws in order to cash in on the valuable pelt.
Estimates place the vicuña population at the time of the Inca civilization between one and 1.5 million animals. By the 1960s, their numbers had dwindled to approximately 10,000. The future looked bleak.
Then, in 1986, a Peruvian company with its roots in textile manufacturing initiated a different kind of plan to save the vicuña. The company’s name was Grupo Inca. Well known for its conservation efforts, especially preserving the rain forests and jungles of Peru, Grupo Inca took on the mantra “Shear a Vicuña to Save a Vicuña.” The company pointed out that no poacher is interested in harvesting an animal without its coat. Grupo Inca’s ultimate plan? Pay local communities for shearing vicuñas and protecting the animal. Funds for these payments would come from company profits generated by manufacturing and selling vicuña cloth.
Standing in the way of Grupo Inca’s plan was an international ban on trade in vicuña products. Since 1975, the animals had been listed as an endangered species under Appendix One of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Unless CITES changed the vicuña’s status, Grupo Inca’s plan was going no where.
Grupo Inca’s request to lift the trade ban was partially granted by CITES in 1987. With restrictions on certain herds, the company was allowed to manufacture and sell vicuña cloth. Eventually, CITES downlisted all of Peru’s vicuña population, allowing for trade in vicuña hair under controlled conditions.
With the CITES obstacle surmounted, Grupo Inca faced one more barrier. Peru’s government owned the vicuña and it was illegal under Peruvian law to harvest the coat.
That changed in the early 1990s. Under President Fuji Mori, vicuña were placed under the ownership and management of Peru’s Indian communities, ancestors of the Incas who had conserved the animals before the arrival of the Spanish. The Indian population banded together to form an association to shear and sell the vicuña hair.
A contract for manufacturing the hair was awarded to a consortium that included Peru’s Condor Tips (part of Grupo Inca) and two Italian firms. In the deal, the natives received $700,000 to finance start up of the vicuña shearing enterprise as well as vicuña conservation. Another $600,000 went toward the purchase of 4,400 pounds of fleece already shorn. The five-year contract (which should come up for renewal this year) pays $500 for every 2.2 pounds of hair, or roughly the hair of five shorn animals. As local communities found a direct interest in saving the animal (i.e. cash), poaching declined.
On September 8, 1999, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed downlisting the vicuña from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Recognizing the efforts of the Peruvian people to protect the vicuña and the importance of trade in that effort, the federal agency was willing to allow some vicuña trade into the United States. No doubt this could further efforts to help the species that now boasts a population of close to 190,000 animals throughout the Andean highlands.