On a trip to the Argentine Puna last week we took the chance to film some of these graceful creatures from our drone. The animals are quite tough to get close to in the wild so the few minutes flying near several family groups gave us a real treat!
The Vicuña, a small member of the camel family, can be found from the highlands of Ecuador down to Northern Argentina, with the vast majority of animals living in the Puna regions of Peru. This hardy but delicate animal lives at altitudes of between 10,000 and 16,000 feet above sea level and the beasts in our video were filmed at around 12,000 ft.
The wool of the Vicuña (or Vicuna if your keyboard does not have the Spanish ñ) is almost the finest wool in the world measuring around 12 microns in diameter which is finer than Cashmere. Vicuñas can be sheared every 2 or 3 years so the wool is not only very fine but also in short supply, hence a large price tag. This has helped bring the animal back from endangered status in 1974 when only 6,000 individuals remained, to today with total population numbers running at over 350,000. The new willingness of Andean people to profit from the wool (plus laws that are now in place) means they are not being hunted as they were in past decades.
In Inca times it was illegal for anyone except the Inca Emperors to wear Vincuña wool as it produced such a fine, soft and warm garment. Today an industry has built up around the wool and garments of all types can be purchased – you dont have to be an Emperor to wear Vicuña these days but the jumpers, scarves and hats are not cheap. The garments of today tend to maintain the natural color of the animal as this wool does not respond well to dyeing.
When you are in South America, traveling in the highland Puna of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia or Argentina, keep your eyes open to the sides of the road. Among the brown grasses you may spot families such as the ones in our video, but stay alert as you can see how well they blend in and how quickly they move….