The Vicuña is the smallest member of the family of camelids and is regarded as the alpaca's wild ancestor. It looks endearing, with its large, forward-facing eyes and small, wedge-shaped head with sharply triangular ears. The color of the head varies from reddish-brown to yellow, and its neck is pale orange. Its chest is covered with a silky white mane, but the fur of the rest of its body is soft and of the same length. It has a pale brown back and its underside and the inner parts of its flanks are dirty white.
The vicuña inhabits the Andes in southern Peru, north-western Argentina, western Bolivia, and northern Chile. It lives in mountainous areas above 3,200 meters, grazing on the short, tough vegetation of these semi-arid rolling grasslands, marshes and plains known as “antiplano” or “puna”. It inhabits areas where water is available for it to drink on a daily basis. The climate of its habitat is dry, and is hot during the day and cold at night.
Vicuñas are shy and alert animals that run away very rapidly. When they sense danger, they make a clear whistling noise. The dominant male warns the herd with its alarm call, and then positions himself between the threat and his herd. A single dominant male is the leader of a group of juveniles and females. He decides the range of the herd's territory and its membership, and drives other male vicuñas away from his group. Family groups are closed, excluding non-member males and sometimes even preventing young female animals from joining. A family group usually numbers 6-10 individuals, according to food availability in its territory. Vicuñas have a feeding territory as well as a separate territory for sleeping. They are diurnal animals, and at night go up to their sleeping territory at higher altitudes. Adults that do not lead a herd either become solitary, or they join a large herd of 30 to 150 individuals.
Vicuñas are polygynous, the dominant male mating with all mature females from his herd. The mating season begins in March or April. The gestation period is 330 to 350 days, and a single fawn is born. A fawn can stand just 15 minutes after being born. It remains close beside its mother for 8 months or more, continuing to suckle until the age of 10 months and becoming independent at around 12 to 18 months of age. Young males join bachelor groups and young females join a sorority. Females are sexually mature at 2 years and some are still reproducing at 19 years.
Poaching takes place, the vicuña’s coat and products being smuggled in large amounts to Asia and Europe. Habitat loss due to over-grazing from domestic livestock or human activities, such pollution of water sources and mining, is a further threat. Climate change may damage the delicate ecosystem where the vicuña lives. A recent potential threat, in the Andes as well as worldwide, is the breeding of a vicuña and alpaca hybrid (a pacovicuña) for commercial purposes.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the vicuña is 347,273 individuals, including estimates for specific regions: Argentina: 127,072 or 72,678 individuals; Bolivia: 62,869 individuals; Chile: 16,942 individuals; Ecuador: 2,683 individuals; Peru: 188,327 individuals. Vicuñas’ numbers are increasing today and they are classified as least concern (LC) on the list of threatened species.