South American Camelids as biocultural components in the Andean Altiplano of Argentina



VICAM: Vicuñas, Camélidos y Ambiente




South America




Vicuñas, pastures, llamas, environmental education


Dr Bibiana Vilá1,2,3.

Dr Yanina Arzamendia.1,2,4

Dr Veronica Rojo. 1,3

Ms Jorge Baldo. 1,4

Dr Hugo Yacobaccio. 1,2

1 VICAM: Vicuñas, Camelids and Environment

2 CONICET: National Research Council, Argentina

3 National University of Lujan.

4 National University of Jujuy

Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

1. Background

South American Camelids (SACs) make several material and non-material contributions to people and are a key component of the Andean biocultural heritage. As emblematic animals of the Puna or Altiplano ecosystem, camelids are part of one of the most long-lived, culturally distinctive socio ecological systems in the world: Andean pastoralism. This system was based only in camelid species until the Spanish conquest in the XVIth century, when European species like sheep, goats, cows and donkeys were introduced (Vilá and Arzamendia 2020). 

The Puna Andean pastoralism is part of a landscape that includes four countries: Argentina,  Bolivia, Chile and Perú. 

The Puna is a distinctive high-altitude, more than 3500 meters above sea level, treeless, semi-arid or arid environment. The dominant plant formation is shrub-steppe with patches of grasslands and wetlands called cienegos or vegas. Local climatic conditions are cold, dry, and with a wide diurnal temperature range. Average annual temperature is 7.7 °C and the mean annual precipitation is 300-400 mm, concentrated primarily in the summer.

Santa Catalina and Barrancas, two small villages in the altiplano in NW Argentina

 There are four SAC living species today, two of which are wild, or Salqa, in the indigenous cosmovision: guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and vicuña (Vicugna vicugna). Llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Vicugna pacos) were domesticated 5000 years ago, and are therefore Uywa     . Both wild and domestic camelids were, and in several cases still are, the most highly appreciated resource or nature contribution for Andean livelihoods. In the altiplano of Argentina, although we can find the four      species, alpacas were introduced from more humid altiplano areas from Bolivia and Chile, guanacos are scarce, so the most important species are vicuñas and llamas.

Brief description of the 4 species of camelids. Extracted from Vilá and Arzamendia 2021.

Historically, wild camelids have been used by Andean human groups since the earliest peopling of the Americas, for over 11,000 years (Yacobaccio 2009). Early American hunters benefited      from their meat, skin, fur, and even their bones for making tools. Pre-Hispanic use of vicuñas has been regulated since the expansion of the Inca Empire. The capture (Chak´u) of vicuñas involved a large group of people walking slowly and holding ropes with colored strings to drive the animals into large stone corrals for shearing their ultra-fine fiber and culling some individuals (Custred 1979). Since the Spanish conquest, the vicuña population      suffered dramatic losses due to indiscriminate hunting, dropping from 2 million specimens to under 10,000 in 1964 (Wheeler and Hoces 1997). The high price of vicuña fleece in the international market of luxury goods led to the killing and overexploitation of this species, which pushed vicuñas to the brink of extinction (Yacobaccio 2009). After 30 years of proactive, effective protection and management, vicuña populations have recovered sufficiently to make sustainable management projects viable (Lichtenstein and Vilá 2003) for the “benefit of the Andean people” (Convenio Internacional para la Conservación y Manejo de la Vicuña 1979). With a current world population of approximately half a million vicuñas, management plans conceived within the paradigm of conservation through sustainable use have been developed in the last decade. Today, live shearing of vicuñas is the only legal way to harvest vicuña fleece, and it is widespread throughout the Andes, albeit with great variability in techniques and therefore, varying degrees of success in terms of sustainability goals (Acebes et al. 2018).

Figure: Steps in the chaku process: 1. Construction of the funnel. 2. Construction of the corral. 3. Meeting with maps to discuss capture technique. 4. Chayada: Relational value, ceremony to ask the Pachamama to help with the capture of her creatures. 5. Last minute scientific-local dialogue to fine-tune the last details of the capture strategy. 6. Walking slowly driving the vicuñas to the funnel. 7. Vicuñas in the funnel. 8. Vicuñas near the corral. 9. Pushing vicuñas into the corral. 10. Vicuñas in the corral. 11 trapped vicuñas. 12 taking vicuñas from the corral to the shearing area. 13 local woman shearer starting her job. 14 controlling physiological parameters. 15 taking temperature. 16 getting the fleece. 17 individual fleeces. 18packing the fleece. 19 vicuñas back to the wild. Post capture studies. Photos credits. Silvina Enrietti, Bibiana Vilá, Yanina Arzamendia. Extracted from Vilá et al. 2020a

In the 2000s vicuña populations in some areas of the Jujuy Province have recovered sufficiently to make sustainable management projects viable.  Our project was born by requirement from local’s communities associations or cooperatives initially worried of what they perceived to be an excessive quantity of vicuñas -for which they had no use- grazing in their lands. This was presented as a trouble that needed a solution. We decided to co-transform with the locals, this situation turning the “problem” into an opportunity. Then we started the project by conducting a vicuña population study in 2001 and the first Chaku in Argentina in 2003 (Vilá 2006).

The Altiplano SEPLs: Although vicuña as a wild camelid could be integrated to the Andean socio-ecological productive system as a highly-valued source of fiber, the main livelihood in the area is pastoralism of livestock, mainly      llamas and sheep. Multispecies pastoralism is especially suitable for facing the harsh conditions of the Puna.

Pastoral woman from the puna, while shepherding the sheep, she is spinning llama fiber. Photo: Bibiana Vilá

Llamas were respected and valued resource in both material and symbolic terms during pre-Hispanic times, and currently a renewed appreciation of llamas is associated to the empowerment of indigenous and local knowledge, the recognition of indigenous rights to land, and the acknowledgement of the key ecological role of SACs as low impact herders in arid steppes. Thus, llamas have a traditional status as iconic animals of Andean biocultural landscapes.

Llama caravans arriving in the Santa Catalina fair. Photo credit Bibiana Vilá

From a biocultural perspective, SACs have different relational values and roles within diverse worldviews, including the scientific, indigenous and local knowledge systems, and these roles and values have also undergone change over time. Camelid NCPs can be analyzed in the context of the diverse values and perceptions -as resources or commodities, sacred beings, utilitarian, non-human companions, etc.

2. Socioeconomic, environmental characteristics of the area

The Argentinean Puna is a dryland in which water and natural vegetation primary productivity is concentrated on patches like primary basins, high valleys and wetlands     . The pastoral system is sustained in natural vegetation of the rangelands and mix-steppes, so we develop local studies to analyze the vegetation conservation status, its dynamics,      carrying capacity and desertification status (Rojo 2017)     . In our knowledge dialogues, we realize that local traditional management strategies include the concept of carrying capacity influenced by climate change, and also include risk aversion strategies.

We work in two villages in the Puna of Argentina Santa Catalina and Barrancas and in  the rural areas surrounding them. They have several common characteristics as small towns in the area. More than 40% of the inhabitants are considered “poor” in the official statistics of the country and have their basic needs unsatisfied, a percentage that increases in rural areas.

Both areas were inhabited by pre-Hispanic communities, as can be observed by rock art and petroglyphs showing camelid depictions.

Rock art with camelids. Barrancas. (jujuy) Photo credit: Bibiana Vilá

The community of Santa Catalina includes      four indigenous groups, and Barracas has two, officially recognized as indigenous organizations. Santa Catalina and Barrancas are centers of administrative, political, sanitary, commercial, religious, festive and educational functions for nearby rural areas. The main sources of income in the area are the breeding of llamas and sheep to produce fiber, leather and meat, governmental subsidies and state employment.

The communities of Santa Catalina and Barrancas define themselves as “Coyas” or “Quechua” people and some are Quechua speakers. The language used in the school is Spanish, Argentina’s official language, although they have Quechua lessons. Only 30% of the students’ families are able to meet their basic needs; 40% belong to families of herders and farmers,     . The school provides four daily meals, and several students live in the school throughout the week.

The pastoral landscape products (meat and fiber) have a small market and shepherds have to travel to sell them or wait until the few fairs, that are important cultural spaces for marketing and meeting

3. Objective and rationale

A sustainable pastoralist economy with complementary use of vicuñas by local communities implies the conservation of the landscape and wild flora and fauna and endemic livestock. Our general objectives include: a) Coproduce with local communities an evidence-based resource management model, towards a sustainable biocultural system that includes llama pastoralism and the conservation and sustainable use of vicuñas in a global changing climate scenario. b) Revalue traditional practices in camelid management. c) Develop environmental education activities to promote appreciation of the multiple values of the surrounding biocultural heritage sites and the pastoralist way of life. 

As the COVID pandemic is having a great impact on the territory, some of our objectives include this new scenario: d) Investigate the impact of COVID-19 on the local bioeconomic situation in terms of key biological (vegetation, livestock and wild herbivores) and social components of the Andean Altiplano SEPL. e) Intercultural dialogues with local stakeholders to design strategies to overcome economic difficulties and help with post-pandemic planning. f) Detailed analysis of necessary skills, costs and time to weave vicuña garments from fiber obtained in local chakus.

Bibiana and Yanina observing and talking with Norma of Barrancas on the quality of llama fiber and the yarn fineness and quality.

4. Detailed description of activities: including how the case study is in line with the conceptual framework of the Satoyama Initiative

At VICAM we believe that there is still the possibility of sustaining and generating societies in harmony with nature. However, we see with concern that Andean pastoralism is at risk due to numerous factors, some environmental but mainly socioeconomic, that pull from outside the system and tempt young people to live urban lives.

That is why it seems very important to consolidate local knowledge in relation to camelids and their products, especially their fiber to secure various ecosystem services and values.

On the other hand, especially in the vicuña’s management with chakus we integrate the traditional ecological knowledge of capture with modern science (in vicuñas ecology, animal welfare protocols, stress studies and sampling) to promote innovations.

We try to explore new forms of co-management systems respecting traditional communal land tenure, and having intercultural dialogues about carrying capacity and desertification.

Working with camelids, both wild and domestic, it is clear that animal grazing must be within the carrying capacity and resilience of the environment, and that includes a cyclical use of natural resources. Furthermore, as pastoralism is fundamental as a biocultural heritage, the recognition of the value and importance of traditions and cultures is guaranteed, and we work together, the communities, the members of the schools and ourselves in the sustainable and multi-stakeholder’s management of the nature’s contributions to people. Through the development of economic resources from the use of camelids and its fiber, we seek the reduction of poverty, food security, sustainable livelihoods and the empowerment of the local community and its women, and the improvement of the resilience of the pastoralists communities to achieve multiple benefits through ecosystem-based approaches.

5. Results and lessons learned

In relation with natural vegetation, we developed a set of aboveground biomass predictive models for some of the most representative species of shrubs and tussock species as a contribution for the development of intercultural dialogues on pastures and carrying capacities (Rojo et al. 2017).

We also investigate habitat use, and grazing of wild vicuñas and livestock, finding that vicugnas can graze in mixed herds with low and medium density llamas groups that imply a neutral stimulus with absence of noticeable interactions between them. On the contrary, the presence of non-native livestock and herders, forced vicuñas to use less preferred habitats and segregate. (Rojo et al. 2012, Arzamendia and Vilá 2014)

We also developed a profound environmental education relationship with local schools communities and we have several beautiful outcomes from it (Vilá et al. 2009, 2020b).

Regarding the camelids fibre, from both llama and vicuña we noted that although live-shearing by indigenous communities could make camelids the “ultimate” eco-friendly wild animal and endemic livestock product, for the high-end fashion industry, difficulties in selling, inequity in market power, intricate bureaucracy and poorly constructed legislation act as barriers for pastoral communities to participate in the chain of production and commercialize their fiber.

We are now working with SDM (Satoyama Development Mechanism) 2020 planning to evaluate challenges and opportunities in using vicuña fiber in a non-commodity way, considering its value not only in instrumental, but also in cultural terms. In places where EE has been successfully implemented, local inhabitants are acutely aware that their camelids are valuable in many ways (including as scientific object of study) and that they have special features that make them unique. Although good news are, unfortunately, very scarce in the world of vertebrate conservation, we know for a fact that investment in conservation measures has reduced the vulnerability and extinction risk of several species, particularly among ungulates (Waldron et al. 2013; Hoffmann et al. 2015).

Currently we are having some difficulties to do field work with the desired frequency as in the South covid vaccination progress is very slow and some Argentinean areas have strict lockdowns. Anyway, we were able to do a first successful travel to the altiplano in April 2021 and started our objectives on the recovery and use of camelids and their fiber as potential resources to improve local livelihoods in a post-pandemic scenario in the Andean Altiplano.

2021 Wild vicuñas in Santa Catalina. Photo Bibiana Vilá

Working on local environment with a local environment model-built Photo. Bibiana Vilá

Yanina with a huge cardon (Trichocereus atacamensis) in Sauzalito

Near Barrancas in a vicuña’s census area.

6. Key messages

In order to attain long-term relevance, the pastoral livelihood in the altiplano including vicuñas conservation through sustainable use must generate a real economic and social observable development. The actual experience of collaborative work between scientific conservation practitioners and local community institutions developing knowledge interchanges, setting the scenarios for the germination      of rooted environmental education activities, is a good pathway. 

References and bibliography

Acebes, P., Wheeler, J., Baldo, J., Tuppia, P., Lichtenstein, G., Hoces, D., Franklin, W.L. 2018. Vicugna vicugna. IUCN Red List Threatened Species. 6A145 36054 2.en

Arzamendia, Y. and B. Vilá. 2014. Vicugna habitat use and interactions with domestic ungulates in Jujuy, Northwest Argentina. Mammalia. 79: 267-278

Custred, G. 1979. Hunting technologies in Andean culture. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 66:7–12.

Hoffmann, M., Duckworth, J.W., Holmes, K., Mallon, D.P., Rodrigues, A.S.L., Stuart, S.N. 2015. The difference conservation makes to extinction risk of the world’s ungulates. Conservation Biology 29(5):1303–1313.

Lichteinstein, G., Vilá, B.L. 2003. Vicuna use by Andean communities: an overview. Mountain Research and Development 23:198–202. https://doi. org/10.1659/0276-4741

Rojo V., Arzamendia Y. y Vilá B. 2012. Uso del hábitat por vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) en un sistema agropastoril en Suripujio, Jujuy. Mastozoología Neotropical. 19 (1):127-138.

Rojo, V. 2017. Análisis de la dinámica de la vegetación puneña en relación con los ungulados domésticos y silvestres y su impacto sobre la desertificación. PhD Thesis, Facultad de Ciencias Agrarias y Forestales, Universidad Nacional de La Plata.

Rojo, V., Arzamendia, Y., Pérez, C., Baldo, J.L., Vilá, B.L., 2017. Double sampling methods in biomass estimates of Andean shrubs and tussocks. Rangeland Ecology and Management 70, 718–722.

Vilá, B.L. 2006.  Investigación, Conservación y Manejo de Vicuñas. Proyecto MACS-Argentina, Buenos Aires.

Vilá, B.L., Arzamendia, Y., 2020. South American Camelids: their values and contributions to people. Sustainability Science

Vilá, B.L., Arzamendia, Y., Rojo, V., 2020a. Vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna), wild andean Altiplano camelids: multiple valuation for their sustainable use and biocultural role in local communities. Case Studies in the Environment 4, 1–14.

Vilá, B.L., Arzamendia, Y., Rojo, V., 2020b. Environmental Education as a Means for Valuing and Conserving Camelids and Pastoralism in the Argentinean Altiplano of Jujuy. Mountain Research and Development 40, D39–D49.

Vilá, B.L., García Gomez, J., Wawrzyk, A. 2009. Environmental education as a tool in the sustainable management of vicuña in the altiplano of South America. In: Gordon IJ (ed.) The Vicuna: The Theory and Practice of Community Based Wildlife Management. New York: Springer Verlag, pp. 256, 97–112.

Waldron, A., Mooers, A.O., Miller, D.C., Nibbelink, N., Redding, D., Kuhn, T.S., Roberts, J.T., Gittleman JL. 2013. Targeting global conservation funding to limit immediate biodiversity declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110(29):12144–12148.

Wheeler, J.C., Hoces, D., 1997. Community participation, sustainable use, and vicuña conservation in Peru. Mountain Research and Development 17, 283–287.

Yacobaccio, H. 2009. The historical relationship between people and the Vicuña. In: Gordon IJ (ed.) The Vicuña. Springer, Boston.

Web links of any relevant organizations and projects

Author’s profile(s)

Bibiana Vilá. Chair of VICAM. Principal Researcher of the CONICET (National Research Council). Professor National University of Lujan. IPBES MEP (Multidisciplinary Expert Panel) Latin-American (GRULAC) member. Vice president of SOLAE LA Society of Ethnobiology and CONICET representative in the Mountain Committee (Mountain Partnership) in the Ministry of Environment. 2014. Midori Prize winner. 

Yanina Arzamendia: Vice-chair of VICAM     .Associate Researcher of the CONICET (National Research Council). Professor National University of Jujuy.  

Veronica Rojo. Member of VICAM. Teaching assistant and researcher at National University of Luján, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Jorge Baldo Member of VICAM. Professor National University of Jujuy. Professional of CONICET (National Research Council).    

Hugo Yacobaccio       Superior Researcher of the CONICET (Retired); Full Professor of Archaeological Theory at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.