© Hernán Torres
by Marcela Torres
A ray of hope shone from Hawaii to South America last week when the General Assembly of the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) approved Motion 103: Vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) conservation and the illegal trade in its fibre. The aim is to achieve that the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which will be held in South Africa between September 24 and October 5, demands its members to strengthen controls to half the poaching and illegal trade in its fibre.
The Vicuña: A Successful Conservation Case
The Vicuña is one of the four South American camelids that inhabit the High Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. During the 1970s, the species was on the brink of extinction due to excessive hunting for its fibre, considered the finest one in the world, on top of those obtained from cashmere goats and alpacas.
Thanks to the efforts made by conservation organizations and the governments of the countries within its area of distribution, which in 1979 signed the Convention for The Conservation and Management of the Vicuña, all trade in live animals, their fiber and other products of the species was banned. As a consequence, its populations successfully recovered.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Peru requested authorization to trade fiber obtained by indigenous communities from animals that are sheared live and then released, using an ancient Inka technique called “chaku”. Thus, the sustainable management of the species began, together with the export of its fiber to countries such as Italy, Scotland and Japan, an example that was later on followed by Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.
Poaching Reappears After Four Decades
Obtaining vicuña fiber is difficult. Each adult sheared adult vicuña produces barely 200 grams of fiber, every two or three years. Because of that, in addition to being the finest fiber it is also the most expensive, with prices ranging between USD $300 and $500 per kilogram.
Companies focused on luxury clothing in countries like Italy, England, Germany and the United States buy vicuña fiber to manufacture articles such as coats and men’s suits, which are sold at approximately USD $20,000 and USD $40,000, respectively. However, over the past years, it is suspected that China has entered the market, although in an illegal manner, promoting a black market for vicuña fiber that would allegedly be paying up to USD $1,000 per kilogram and being supplied through poaching of the species, particularly by criminal groups operating in Bolivia.
Approximately 5,000 vicuñas have shown up dead and skinned over the past five years. But the killings have increased significantly since 2014 to date, endangering once more the survival of the species and threatening the livelihood of High-Andean communities that carry out a sustainable management of the vicuña with great efforts.
How can these killings be stopped?
Fortunately, civil society and the scientific community have raised their voices over the past year to call attention to this issue and request worldwide help to solve it, from petitions through Internet sites -such as www.thepetitionsite.com and www.care2.com- to a statement made by the IUCN’s South American Camelid Specialist Group (GECS by its acronym in Spanish).
What is needed most is to stop the illegal sale of vicuña products. On the one hand, as consumers we are responsible for making sure that what we buy is duly certified. In addition, we must report any informal sale offer we encounter, since it will most likely be part of a black market that promotes killing protected wildlife.
At an international level, it is crucial that the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) accepts Motion 103 of the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress and commits to, among other things, ensure that the Parties to the CITES that have vicuña fiber and products derived from it identify, mark and register them appropriately, to guarantee their traceability to their origin, adopting and applying the relevant legislation with extensive controls, in order to prevent the illegal trade in these items and that States within the species’ area of distribution, importing countries as well as consumers increase their collaboration.
Let’s hope that the CITES will hear the global outcry to save the Vicuña!