Vicuñas live in the chilly Andean plateaus and produce a fleece so fine that it was considered to be cloth of gold. It was told that only Inca royalty were permitted to wear it … because it was a gift from the God’s. For many centuries, the vicuña was an animal highly appreciated by the Andean cultures. Hunted in excess since colonial times, the vicuña was endangered. Its numbers were estimated at 2 million at the arrival of the Spaniards, yet there were only 6000 left in 1965. For centuries, the animals were hunted, rather than sheared, for a material substantially finer than cashmere.
In 1975, the vicuña was incorporated into the protection program of CITES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) which prohibited any international trade of vicuña. From that moment, Peru established reserves in several regions of the country. The vicuña is owned by the Peruvian state which have entrusted its protection to local indigenous communities. These are the only communities authorized for shearing and selling its fiber to the companies responsible for processing and marketing. CONACS (National Council for South American Camelids) controls this process.
Today, their numbers have grown to nearly 350,000 in the Andes Mountains, mainly in Peru. The vicuña is the smallest of South American camelids with less than 90 cm at the withers, with a maximum weight of 40 kg. A vicuña is easily recognizable, much more delicate, and graceful than its cousins, is tawny brown, whereas the hair on the throat and chest is white and quite long. An elegant animal, very agile in their movements, will approach people easily within a few meters, the vicuña more like a gazelle than a llama, can run up to 40 km/h and jumps up to 2 meters.
Wild vicuñas live in semi-arid areas of the Andes between 3,500 and 5,800 meters above sea level, mainly in Peru (90% of the entirely population), the vicuña is one of the symbols of the Peruvian state appearing in the coat of arms of the national flag. Vicuñas live in family-based groups made up of a male, five to fifteen females, and their young. Some live in bachelor groups. The gestation period is 11 months and fawns become independent at about 12 months old. Young males usually then find their future partners, sometimes leading to strong macho confrontations. In an annual ceremony, originated during Inca times and is called “Chaku”, which is still practiced today for shearing of vicuñas. Multitudes of people form an immense human chain to herd vicuñas into a corral built for the occasion. Inside the corral the vicuñas suited for shearing are selected. The animals which can only be sheared once every three years, each produce between 200 and 300 grams of fleece. Its fiber is very short, but has incredible warmth and therefore it allows the vicuñas to withstand extreme temperatures in high altitudes.
Today, the total global supply of annually produced vicuña fleece, which can be transformed into yarn, is only about 12 tonnes. Compared to approximately 25,000 tonnes of cashmere. Measuring 11-12 micrometers in diameter, vicuña is by far the finest, most luxurious, and most expensive fibre in the world.
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