An Interview with High Andean Heart-throb, Vicuña (Vicugna) Mensalis

V. v. mensalis is used to others being breathless around him. He makes his home thousands of metres up in the Andes, where the wind is punishing, the water vanishing, and the chill of night, penetrating. His majestic and windswept appearance is only partly due to the breeze slicing across the plains. He doesn’t look like the world’s smallest camel, and even he doesn’t quite believe it.

V.v.m. [laughing]I know, I don’t even have a hump, right? But that is not the vicuña way. We don’t flaunt our hardiness for all to see. In fact, I hate to say this, but to others we appear weak. It’s true we must drink every day from the bofedales [small wetland areas], but we can outrun a small horse on little air [just 12% oxygen at this altitude], survive bitterly cold nights on the hills [to avoid pumas], and we have never been tamed by the hand of man. We are too stubborn. But [laughs] you need to be, to cling to life up here!

I ask him what life is like for him and his family. He would not agree to an interview in private, as he does not allow them out of his sight.

V.v.m. There is nothing better than family life. And my lady friends would agree. I give them a calf every summer, and two weeks later, they come to me asking for another! I have four lady friends at the moment, but even with our three sons and daughter, I think they feel lonely. I’m always on the lookout for more.

Incidentally, V.v.m. would like the ladies to know that, as a “mensalis”, his subspecies has the most chest hair.

It can be busy, especially as running isn’t the only way we last longer than the horses…if you catch my meaning.

On the other hand, life can be very difficult, with little grass, droughts, harsh weather. Sometimes the cattle take our food or make us sick. But this is my home, and I must make sure my family has the best graze and water. I also need to watch the other vicuña boys, to keep them at bay.

As he doesn’t “flaunt his hardiness”, I ask how he keeps everyone safe.

V.v.m. Simple. The boys can be seen off with a spit or kick. Failing that, I place myself between my family and danger, so that they can run away. But, as you probably know, that doesn’t always work. Fortunately, the “danger” isn’t always lethal.

I ask if he is talking about the people after his wool.

V.v.m. Yes. Many still seek the “Silk of the New World”. It adorned robes of Incan royalty alive or dead, the divans of Spanish kings, and the coats of the modern rich.  In their “chakus”, the Incas hunted us in great numbers, turning all but the very old loose after shearing our wool. And they did one quarter of their empire at a time, so we could recover. The conquistadors did not do this, so we almost vanished like drought water.

Now people mostly hunt like the Inca used to, and our wool is still a luxury. But a little luxury can be a bad thing, as your politicians know! [US President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, for example, resigned after accepting the gift of a vicuña coat from someone under investigation.]

I ask how he feels about his and his species’ future.

V.v.m. It is strange. On the one hand, we are revered for our wool. On the other, the cattle owners hate us. Humans turn as much as the weather, and both are making food and water harder to come by. We have bounced back from the edge before, but with human help. So I feel our future is as sturdy as my latest newborn son rising to his feet. Make of that what you will.

TLDR

Latin: Vicugna vicugna. There are two subspecies, V. vicugna vicugna, and the smaller, darker northern subspecies V. vicugna mensalis.

What? Llama-like camelid whose wool is extremely valuable due to its warmth and texture

Where? High grasslands and plains in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, from 3,600–4,800 metres / 12,000–16,000 feet altitude. Also recently introduced in Ecuador.

How big? 0.9 metres / 3 feet at the shoulder, 1.9 metres / 6 feet long.

Endangered? Now classed as Least Concern, but almost hunted to extinction in the 1960s due to its meat and luxurious coat. It’s still at risk from climate change, competition with cattle, cattle-borne diseases and unregulated poaching.

Probable motto: I may be the smallest of the camels, but I’d say I’m the hardiest!

They look awesome. Do they need my help at all?

Although the vicuña has bounced back from extinction, this was largely due to strict species protection and trading regulations, e.g. only live shorn wool can be sold. It’s still at risk from climate change, considered a pest by farmers, and can catch diseases from cattle or poorly managed captive herds, so things may not be as bright and rosy as they appear.

The World Conservation Society looks out for the Bolivian populations of vicuña after undertaking various local projects.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Ahmed, Osman. 2017. “Inside the business of vicuña, the wool worth more than gold“. Business of Fashion.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Vicuña“. Britannica.com.

Hughes, J. Donald. 1999. “Conservation in the Inca empire“. Capitalism Nature Socialism 10(4):69-76.

Knowsley, Jo. 2012. “The Olympic Games, London, 27 July – 12 August – Finding gold in the grey matter“. Tes.com.

Lucherini, Mario, and Birochio, Diego E. 1997. “Lack of aggression and avoidance between vicuña and guanaco herds grazing in the same Andean habitat“. Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment 32(2):72-75.

Marcopiddo, Gisela et al. 2018. “Physiological and behavioral indices of short-term stress in wild vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) in Jujuy Province, Argentina“. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 21(3):244-255.

True, V.L., and Lautaro Núñez A. 1971. “Modeled anthropomorphic figurines from northern Chile“. Ñawpa Pacha 9(1):65-86.

Vicugna vicugna“. No date. Animal Diversity Web.

Vicugna vicugna“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Vicuña“. No date. Belfast Zoo.

Vicuna“. No date. Edinburgh Zoo.

Vilá, Bibiana L. 1995. “Spacing Patterns within Groups in Vicuñas, in Relation to Sex and Behaviour“. Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment 30(1):45-51.

Featured image credit: “Vicuna in the Altiplano of Bolivia” by SL_Photography

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