Vicuñas won’t be farmed

We saw many a vicuña on our tour through southwestern Bolivia. But they're really only common in very inaccessible places.
We saw many a vicuña on our tour through southwestern Bolivia. But they’re really only common in very inaccessible places.

In Arequipa we were shopping for quality alpaca goods and were shown a vicuña jersey. Vicuñas are, like llamas and alpacas, part of the camelid family. They live on the high Andean plains and they produce excellent wool. Its incredibly soft and durable. And exceptionally expensive. Like $1,000NZD plus for a jersey.

The big driver of cost is that vicuñas fur is tough to get. It mostly comes from wild animals which are not easy to find, and have, at times, faced extinction. No one could really give me a satisfactory explanation of why you couldn’t farm them. So I went looking for one and found several:

  • First, you can only shear them once every two years, and when you do you’ll only get about 150 grams of wool. And vicuñas need a lot of space including a separate range to sleep and to eat. So the economics are super challenging.
  • Second, they don’t do captivity well. They have long and elaborate courtship rituals which are inhibited in captivity, so they don’t breed (incidentally this is also true for cheetahs). And male vicuñas are super pissy with each other and can’t be in close proximity.

As a result farming isn’t a goer. You need to hunt them, wild, or herd them across massive areas. For example, one range in Argentina has 330 square miles on land (85,000 hectares) and about 6,000 vicuñas within it. Really what this means is just owning a large tract of alpine land, leaving it be, and then looking for vicuñas every once in a while.

There’s an argument that no animal that is farmed will ever become extinct. And it does seem that the herding process has been good for the vicuña stock. We could take a similar approach with tigers and elephants. But vicuñas show that ‘farming’ isn’t always a goer. Vicuñas will not be farmed.

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