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“The opening of the vicuña wool industry led to market expansion, which we did not anticipate.  Increasing demand in turn led to more poaching, not less”

~ Dr Cristian Bonacic DVM, MSc, DPhil National Geographic, 2015

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Title:  Article two - The Vicuña - The ultimate Ungulate

Published:  First published March 2019

Author: Save Our Rhino & Action For Rhinos

Family:  Camelidae

IUCN conservation status:  Least Concern

CITES status:  Appendix. 1

With commercial interests being the main driving force behind a legalised trade of rhino horn, it’s no surprise that amid the supporters’ pursuit to add credibility to the trade tender, comparisons are made with the management models of other legalised trades of animal derivatives.  Pro-trade advocates have long argued that controlled trade is responsible for the recovery of vicuña and while the points made about trade similarities appear to be valid, they don’t hold up under closer scrutiny.

The Vicuña - The World’s Ultimate Ungulate

The vicuña, the smallest of the family of camelids, can be found exclusively in South America, primarily in the central Andes. Vicuña populations can be found in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina with a small population in Ecuador.

With a soft, silky cinnamon coloured coat that can be spun eight times finer than human hair, the wool from the vicuña, ancestor of the domesticated alpaca, is the most expensive in the world.  One yard of vicuña wool can sell for between £1180 and £1980 on the international market.

The Demise of Vicuñas

Prior to European colonization, the Inca Empire considered vicuña sacred.  The animal was protected under Inca law and only royalty permitted to wear clothing woven from its luxurious fleece (nicknamed “fibre of the gods”).  By the early 16th century, populations were estimated to be around 2 million animals.  After the Spanish conquest in 1532, vicuñas were persecuted as Europeans conducted large scale exportation of vicuña skin and wool.  Indiscriminate poaching and exploitation of vicuñas continued unabated until the mid 1960s, by which time populations had plummeted to between 10,000 and 15,000 animals, with Ecuador’s population becoming extinct.  Vicuña populations in the remaining four countries teetered on the brink of extinction and vicunas became one of the most endangered species in South America.

The Vicuña Wool Trade versus the Rhino Horn Trade

There are some similarities between the existing management programmes of the vicuña and proposed legalised sale of rhino horn but at best they’re sketchy. Both vicuña wool and rhino horn are products with high demand and a high re-sale value. Both products are sustainable and renewable (they re-grow) and both species were/are under severe threat from poaching and extinction.  There are also fundamental differences between the two as well.

When trade in vicuña wool was originally conceived, vicuñas were intended to be free roaming wild animals, herded only for wool harvesting. In contrast, the proposed trade of rhino horn relies mainly on harvesting the horns from captive or farmed rhinos on private land, the owners being the main beneficiaries of any income generated through horn sales.  Unlike the proposal of a legalised trade of rhino horn as a measure to eliminate poaching and increase animal numbers, the trade of vicuña wool was only intended as an economically viable method of supporting poorer communities and conserving the species.  Today, demand for vicuña has risen dramatically and the original management of vicuñas has shifted to meet these international demands.  Unsurprisingly, vicuña farms have been established with the sole purpose of breeding and harvesting, taking emphasis away from conservation and focusing more on sustainable use of the species.

In South America, the vicuña has both cultural and religious importance to local communities and the wool, meat and hide are all purposeful to humans.  The purported medicinal properties and high status value of rhino horns are based on myth and superstition and unlike vicuña derivatives; rhino horn serves no practical purpose to humans.  While the trade of vicuña products raises no substantial ethical issues (other than predominantly animal welfare, due to farming practices), rhino horn does.  To sell a product based on the gullibility of consumers/users is morally objectionable.  The rhino horn trade will exploit misplaced beliefs and will openly endorse the use of a fictitious product which will almost certainly stimulate demand to unsustainable numbers.

Vicuña shearing:


Both shearing and de-horning are non-surgical procedures however, unlike de-horning which requires the administration of veterinary medication to immobilize (not anaesthetise) the rhino, vicuña shearing takes place while the animal is awake and alert (much like shearing a sheep).  


Rhino de-horning.  


Protecting Vicuñas:

In 1973 the United States congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with the purpose of recovering and protecting imperilled species and the eco-systems on which they depend.  Under the act, species are classified as either endangered (in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range) or threatened (species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future).

On the 3rd March 1973, at the World Wildlife Conference in Washington D.C, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) was established.  In 1975, the CITES treaty entered into force, with the objective of ensuring that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.  Vicuñas in all five member countries (Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Ecuador), were placed on Appendix I (CITES operate under three separate appendices, each one offering listed species a different level of protection; Appendix I is the highest level of protection).    The CITES classification prohibited all commercial and international trade of vicuña derivatives.  Each country became responsible for implementing their own management system and  legislation.

In response to centuries of exploitation further conservation efforts were implemented.  The Vicuña Convention (later to change to the Convention and Conservation Management of Vicuña), was established in 1979 with an objective to prevent further decrease of the species and promote population recovery.  The agreement, signed by Peru and Bolivia, and then in 1974 by Argentina, Chile and Ecuador, assured that all five countries had an obligation to prohibit and suppress hunting of vicuña and maintain protection in national reserves and private lands.

Vicuña Population Recovery during the International Trade Ban:

With the national and international trade ban enforced and a period of absolute protection fully implemented, vicuña populations recovered. During the strict regime of trade prohibition, vicuña populations across all five countries increased by 789% (1969-1993/94).  

In 1993/94 CITES no longer considered vicuñas to be threatened with extinction and relaxed the conservation status across all range states; the majority of populations were down listed to Appendix II, permitting controlled trade.


Vicuñas recovered due to strategic conservation management: trade prohibition combined with both species and habitat protection. Only when populations increased to sustainable numbers, due to the international trade ban was trade once again permitted, allowing commercially harvested fibres to be sold, but still forbidding hunting.

The original trade model for harvesting and financially benefiting from vicuña derivatives was never intended as a mechanism to eliminate poaching.  Even today, three and a half decades after the signing of the Vicuña Convention and with a regulated trade established over two decades ago, illegal markets still thrive and poaching continues in the wild.  

Pro-trade proponents claim that the legalised trade of vicuña wool has helped curb poaching and is proof that a controlled market is beneficial to both communities and species.  After the international trade in vicuña wool was permitted, demand from the fashion industry escalated rapidly with new markets opening.  As a result, an upsurge in vicuña poaching began again and has been difficult to control ever since, due to the inaccessible nature of their habitat in the wild.

Pro-trade supporters continue to champion the legalised trade of vicuña wool as a successful business model on which to base the proposed trade of rhino horn, but poaching still continues in high numbers today.  Demand is now so high for vicuña wool that farms have been established for the sole purpose of supplying trade, the conditions of which do not emulate natural wild habitats.  

The farming of wild animals poses many risks, including increased risk of disease and degradation of genetic diversity, among others. What research has been done into the impact of keeping rhinos at unnaturally high population densities? Some reports seem to indicate that the higher the population, the lower the breeding rate. In 2008, Solio Game Reserve in Kenya was forced to remove black rhino from the population when the breeding percentage dropped to 3.8%.  It would be interesting to know the percentage of births versus the population on properties known to be intensive farming operations. With higher density populations, there has to be a skewed ratio between adult bulls and cows. Supplementary feeding, the cost of protection and the possibility of disease spreading among a dense rhino population has to be taken into consideration. Growing herds of rhino to a level where the return income from horn sales versus their upkeep can take many years. At least one local study done at Rhodes University indicates that without external subsidies and financial support, this could be cost inhibitive. Studies with captive rhinos also indicate a higher mortality rate among black rhino and a lower reproductive rate in white rhino. To date, no scientific studies have been conducted to establish the psychological effects of herding naturally solitary animals, such as rhinos, in breeding farms nor have any studies been conducted to establish the long term psychological effects of regular horn removal (rhino horn is used by the animals to dig and forage, guide youngsters and for protection).

Back in 2008, officially recorded poaching incidents equated to around 0.28% of the entire vicuña population.  That same year, South Africa witnessed a spike in rhino poaching mortalities.  Supporters of a legalised trade of rhino horn, constantly declare that the CITES ban has always been detrimental to rhino populations and failed to yield any form of success and yet, once the international ban on rhino horn trade had been enforced in 1993 to stop supply, demand fell away, alternatives were found and incidents of rhino poaching fell to an all time low for over a decade.  In 2008, 83 rhinos were poached in South Africa (approximately 0.3% of the entire African population of rhinos).  Isn’t it strange how poaching percentages between the two trades were so similar and yet one is hailed a success, while the other is a desperate failure?

From 2012 reports of poaching in Peru escalated, a trend that is continuing.  In January 2015, ecologist and veterinarian Cristian Bonacic, of Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, in Santiago, who was at the forefront of developing best practice guidelines for sustainable, ethical use of vicuñas, published an article, saying that legalizing rhino horn trade, will not save the species. In his article, he explains why a legal trade in vicuña wool has led to more—not less—poaching, and why he thinks a legal trade in rhino horn could be catastrophic for the species. He says:

 “The availability and affordability of vicuña wool has ultimately not worked to protect wild populations from poaching. In fact, poaching has even increased over the past ten years in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. The opening of the vicuña wool industry led to market expansion, which we did not anticipate.  Increasing demand in turn led to more poaching, not less. Our worry now is that globalization could increase demand for vicuña wool beyond natural production limits, threatening wild vicuñas yet again.”

Given the above, why would opening the market for rhino horn trade be any different?