National Animals of South America - The Vicuna
Peru's National Animal
The vicuna is the national animal of Peru (its national bird is the Andean cock-of-the-rock) and is also seen on the Peruvian coat of arms. It is one of two wild species of South American camelids which live in the high Andes. The taxonomic name is Vicugna vicugna and there are two subspecies.
The vicuna is a member of the Camelidae family which includes the camel, llama, alpaca and guanaco. It is believed to be the progenitor of the domestic alpaca, which came about some 6,000 years ago following centuries of selective breeding.
The fine wool from the vicuna is exceptionally soft and warm. The animal can only be shorn once every three years and in the days of the Incas, the vicuna was protected and only royalty was allowed to wear garments made from its wool.
The vicuna was declared endangered in 1974 and numbers have recovered somewhat since then.
Vicuna live primarily in the central Andes. Peru has the greatest population and they are found in north-west Argentina, Bolivia and northern Chile with a smaller, introduced number in central Ecuador.
Vicunas live at altitudes between 3,200 and 4,800 metres. During the day, they feed on the grassy plains of the Andes but retreats to the slopes at night. Although the temperature is reasonably warm through the day, it drops to freezing at night.
The thick but soft coat traps layers of warm air to keep the animal warm. Even so, the vicuna is a tough survivor of the Andes ranges.
The vicuna is more graceful than the bigger guanaco. It is very slender with skinny legs and neck. The small head is wedge-shaped and the ears small and triangular. The round eyes are large. The coat is long and woolly. The wool is a light cinnamon or reddish brown in colour with dirty white underparts. At the base of the neck on the chest is a strange, pompom-like tuft of 8 to 12 inch long silky white hairs.
Head and body length is around 5 feet and the height at the shoulder around 3 feet. It has a short tail of about 9 inches. It weighs between 35 and 65 kg. In an effort to thwart poachers, any animal with a coat longer than 2.5 cm is shorn each year. The cloven feet have padded soles which help it grip the stony slopes over which it travels.
Vicunas move by pacing ie both legs on the same side move forward at the same time so the right front and hind legs move forward simultaneously followed by both left front and hind legs. It can keep up a fast speed for great distances if it has the need.
Vicunas are very shy and have remarkable hearing and keen eyesight. At the least sign of danger, one will give a high soprano whistle and the group will vanish.
They can run at nearly 30 mph and, because of the rarefied atmosphere, have a heart nearly 50% larger than similarly weighted mammals. The vicuna is a natural pacer ie both left legs move forward together followed by both right legs.
Family based groups of a male and 5 to 15 females plus youngsters have territories of around 18 square kilometres. Vicunas have a day-time grazing territory and a sleeping territory further up the mountain. The two are connected by a corridor which isn't protected. The territories are marked with communal dung heaps. The dominant male keeps all his family with 160 feet of each other and is vigilant in repelling rival males and seeing off small predators that might be a threat to the young. Vicunas must drink each day and this has a bearing on the size of their territory.
They search out natural mineral and salt licks and will drink salt water from time to time. Juveniles are ousted by the dominant male and form single-sex herds. Some males will lead solitary lives.
Vicunas have a broad range of communication techniques. Body postures, placement of ears and tails are all signals to herd members. Some of the movements are very subtle but, at some unseen signal, the herd will move as one. The alarm call is a high-pitched whinny. Other vocalisations including a soft humming which is used as a bonding or greeting sound. Fear and anger are broadcast with a range of guttural sounds.
The main source of nourishment for the vicuna is the clumpy grasses found on the mountain valleys. These tough grasses cause a lot of wear on the teeth and as an adaptation the incisors grown constantly and have enamel on one side only. This is unique among cloven-hoofed animals.
After mating in March/April and an 11 month gestation, a single fawn called a cria is born in February/March. Crias are up and walking within 15 minutes of birth.
Weaning takes place between six and ten months. Juveniles are evicted from their group before 12 months of age and sexually mature at around two years.
Unbred females react to the male's melodic mating noises called 'orgling'. Only males make this sound. The life span is around 20 years or slightly more in captivity.
Humans (as in poaching) and habitat loss are two of the threats to the vicuna. The main animal predators are cougars (pumas) and the Magellan fox.
In Peru, from 1964 to 1966 a group of men were trained as game wardens to deter poachers from entering a nature reserve for the vicuna. This was a very successful enterprise. Nowadays an annual 'chaccu' is held. The animals are herded together, caught and most shorn (the animals are only shorn every two years). The wool is sold on the world market with part of the proceeds going to assist the community. Similar schemes have arisen in the other South American countries that have vicunas.
Even so, up to 50,000 pounds of wool are exported each year illegally. Some countries have now banned the importation of the fibre. 'Domesticated' vicunas tend to escape and so the industry has not taken off as a commercial enterprise.
The vicuna is now listed as low risk, but conservation dependent.