Conservation and the sustainable use of Vicuñas in South America

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Conservation and the sustainable use of Vicuñas in South America

Jorge Bastidas

Willandia Chaves

Antonio Crespo

David Hanson

The term conservation is not a straight forward concept that evokes a single interpretation. Despite its common use in our everyday lexicon, conservation is understood in many different ways by different people; variations exist even in groups that seem homogeneous. For example, a group of graduate students from the University of Florida were asked to respond to a quote that evokes the concept of conservation:

"The days a man spends fishing or spends hunting should not be deducted from the time that he's on earth. In other words, if I fish today, that should be added to the amount of time I get to live…I plan to fish and hunt as much as I possibly can...." George Bush, quoted in Los Angeles Times (December 1988)

For this purpose we used a participatory technique called The Open Statement (Metaplan 1998) in which the target group is asked to vote on their level of agreement or disagreement with a given statement. Afterwards, the group is asked to elaborate on the reasons for agreeing and disagreeing with the statement. The results from this simple enquiry confirmed the wide amplitude of ideas people have on conservation, despite the relative homogeneity of the group. For some, conservation is related to the permanence of natural resources; for others it relates to opportunities for recreation and for others it means isolating pristine areas from human influence.

The literature gives the following definitions for conservation:

• The management of human use of nature so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to current generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations. (Hesselink, et al. 2007)

• The management of human interactions with genes, species, and ecosystems so as to provide the maximum benefit to the present generation while maintaining their potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations; encompasses elements of saving, studying, and using biodiversity. (Hesselink et al. 2007)

• Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. (Aldo Leopold)

The concept of Conservation Through Management has been proposed as a valid conservation strategy that links the idea of sustainable use with the long-term permanence of species, ecosystems and genes. If the species has social and economic value (e.g., people use the species or habitat for their livelihood, public good or recreation), one approach to conserve that species is to establish a management strategy for conservation. This idea requires a strong management strategy that includes a regulatory framework, a continuous feedback/monitoring system and sustained enforcement. The ultimate goal is to achieve ecological, social, and economic sustainability (Mulder & Coppolillo 2005).

This concept can be better understood with the case study of the Vicuña, a South American camelid that was almost driven to extinction by excessive hunting. Sustainable management of vicuña’s precious fiber is being developed strongly in Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

Vicuña Management

Vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) are one of the wild camelid species in South America. They occur in the Andean regions of Peru (~188,000), Bolivia (~ 62,000 individuals), Argentina (~ 127,000 individuals) and Chile (~16,000 individuals). There is also a small population of over 2,500 individuals that were reintroduced from the other three countries where the species occur (Lichtenstein et al. 2010). Vicuñas can live in family groups (generally one male, three females, and two to three young), bachelor groups, and solitary individuals (Cassini et al. 2009). They produce small amounts of particularly fine wool, which has a high economic value. Each individual can only be sheared once every three years.

Vicuna Management programs are an interesting case study since they show the complex relationship between local communities, a common pool resource, and the global market. Vicunas are managed under both common property in the wild and private regimes in semi-captivity. The vicuna fleece is highly valuable in international markets and this fleece is produced by low income producers in the Andes. As the producers of this elegant fibers are struggling to survive in the rough environment of the Andes, at the end of the chain are wealthy consumers in developed countries who pay exuberant prices for vicuna products; for example, currently in London a vicuna scarf could sell for between US $ 1,418 to $9,900 (Lichtenstein, 2010). The Incas used to call this fleece “the fiber of the gods” and it was highly valued. It would seem rational for the Andean communities to maintain their ancestors’ perception towards vicuñas, but as international policies have burdened these communities with all the responsibility of conservation and in most cases none of the advantages, vicuñas are perceived as a cost rather than a benefit. Therefore, the idea of conservation through management is to allow local communities to conserve the vicunas and to also allow them to extract the vicuna wool and commercialize it.

Vicuna management programs in the Andes follow the logic of community based wildlife management (CWM). There are two general outcomes expected from CWM:

• Maintenance of wildlife habitats, preservation of the species

• Improve social and economic well-being of local communities.

Allowing commercial utilization of fiber obtained from vicuñas would encourage local participation and the development of positive local attitudes towards vicuña conservation. In turn, this should result in decreases poaching, the replacement of domestic livestock (e.g. sheep and cows) with vicuñas ,and finally, greater support for conservation measures.

Literature Cited:

Lichtenstein, G., Baldi, R., Villalba, L., Hoces, D., Baigún, R. & Laker, J. 2008. Vicugna vicugna. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. <>. Downloaded on 15 December 2010.

Lichtenstein, G. 2010. Vicuña conservation and poverty alleviation? Andean communities and international fibre markets. International Journal of the Commons 4, 100-121.

Cassini , M., Borgnia, M., Arzamendia, Y., Benítez, V., Vilá, B. 2009. Sociality, Foraging and Habitat Use by Vicuña, in: Gordon, I.J. (Ed.), The Vicuña: The Theory and Practice of Community Based Wildlife Management. Springer, New York, pp. 35-48.

Hesselink, F., Goldstein, W., van Kempen, P., Garnett, T. and J. Dela. 2007. "Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) toolkit: A toolkit for National Focal Points and NBSAP coordinators”. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and IUCN. Montreal, Canada

Metaplan, 1998. Primer for the Metaplan technique: How to moderate group discussion using the Metaplan Technique.

Mulder, M. B., Coppolillo, P. 2005. Conservation: linking ecology, economics, and culture. Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.