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What is a Vicuña?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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A vicuña is a small camelid mammal related to the llama and the alpaca. Found mostly in South America, the vicuña is renowned for its wool, which is silkier and often more expensive than that of the animal's larger cousins. Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts, the once-endangered animal has been restored to a healthy population in its native environment.

Vicuñas are small, slender creatures that look quite unlikely to survive the heights and dangers of the Andes mountain range. Adult animals rarely reach over three feet (.91 meters) in height at the shoulder, but have a long slender neck and head that can reach two ft (.6 m) above the body. Special climate adaptations include thick, silky fur and a specialized anatomy that allows for climbing great heights. Blood cells in the vicuna can absorb more oxygen, while heart quite large for an animal of its size allows the creature to survive in low-oxygen mountain ranges without damage.

Small herds of five to fifteen animals are common throughout the vicuña ranges of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and other nearby habitats. These groups typically include one adult male, several adult females, and dependent fawns. Mating takes place shortly after the birthing season, and the gestation period lasts about 11 months. The typical life span of a vicuña in the wild is around 20 years; in captivity they may live somewhat longer.

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The history of the vicuña and man has long been a precarious one, though ancient Incan discoveries have revealed that the population once soared into the millions. Prized for both meat and wool, vicuñas were hunted nearly out of existence during the 20th century, dropping well below 10,000 wild specimens. For much of the last half of the century, the species was listed as threatened or endangered by environmentalist bodies such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). In 1996, the species was declared temporarily out of danger due to serious conservation efforts, with a thriving population of at least 120,000 animals in the wild.

Wool from the vicuña is among the most expensive fabrics in the world, far exceeding other luxury wool products like angora or cashmere. Raw wool can cost hundreds of US Dollars per ounce, while finished products such as coats or even scarves may cost thousands of US Dollars. Wool is typically light brown, gold, or red, and is an extremely rare product on legal markets.

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