The vicuña and guanaco are beautiful wild relatives of the alpaca and llama found in the grassy pampas and high Andes of South America. Some forty years ago, the vicuña was massively over-hunted, which resulted in a remnant population of only a few thousand wild individuals. After focused conservation on its behalf, today the population throughout the entire range is estimated at some 350,000 individuals. The guanaco continues to decline in many locations due to overhunting and loss of habitat to domestic sheep, mining activities, and fencing, leaving some populations isolated and under severe threat.
In recent decades the economic importance of wild vicuña wool from live sheared animals has helped to increase protection of these camelids, and efforts have been made to process wool from wild guanacos as well. However, disease issues have now been identified that immediately threaten the health, economic importance, and survival of these wild camelids across their range.
One of the most significant threats facing the vicuña and guanaco is mange/scabies. The disease severely impacts the health and even survival of the individuals; studies of some vicuña populations have found that approximately 60% of the animals have the disease.
WCS has a history of working on health issues related to South American camelids in general, and is launching an integrated program aimed at controlling the mange/scabies threat will improve vicuña and guanaco health, decrease deaths and stabilize population trends, which will help to ensure the preservation of the important role of these two wild camelids in the pampas and high Andes ecosystem. This program will also improve livelihoods and economic resilience for indigenous communities through improved management in fibre production.
Vicuna photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher, WCS