Vicuña Territory: Wildlife Management and State Conservation in Late 20th-Century Peru

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 11:30 AM
Room 605 (Colorado Convention Center)
Emily Wakild, Boise State University
Vicuñas hold a special place in the extensive and peculiar menagerie of Latin American animals. A smaller wild cousin to the llama, vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) are about the size of a collie with long slender necks, oversized dark eyes, and upturned, smiling mouths. The animals’ historic range is the southern Andean mountains with the highest concentrations in Peru. Vicuña have never been effectively bred in captivity but they are known in international luxury markets for the soft, lush, exquisitely warm wool that fetched prices three to five times the price of cashmere. Demand for the wool expanded until it nearly rendered the animal extinct. Vicuña populations declined from an estimated one million animals in 1940 to a nadir of 6,000 by 1965.  At this point, the Peruvian government stepped in to save the animal from extinction at the hands of unfettered global trade. This rescue included a territorial reserve at Pampa Galeras, international treaties restricting trade, and community development plans. Results rapidly exceeded expectations but within a decade a new crisis arose as animal overpopulation threatened the reserve. 

Fierce debates erupted over what should happen next. Should the animals be selectively culled and the meat and wool commercialized to benefit local populations? Or, should strict conservation measures remain in force allowing animal populations to soar despite looming drought and grassland deterioration? Translocation to other sites emerged as the only politically correct alternative but proved unfeasible when the Peruvian Communist Party-Shining Path violently attacked the authority of the state, including the vicuña reserve. Poachers returned and vicuña numbers plummeted.  Slowly, subsequent and politically distinct governments reinstituted the conservation measures, especially the reserve and restrictions, because saving the animal remained ideologically anchored to the state. There are more than 350,000 wild vicuña in Peru today.

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