Wooden vicuña (pronounced “VI-CU-NIA”) statuettes, often mistaken for llamas, make great souvenirs and gifts when you visit Peru! (Other souvenir ideas include the qiru Andean drinking vessel and the retablo diorama showing a nativity scene). The specific one above was requested by my sister for her apartment, which I purchased from Inka Plaza in Lima, but they may also be available in Cusco.
The vicuña is one of two wild cousins of the llama and the wild ancestor to the alpaca. In the past, only Inca royalty were allowed to wear vicuña wool. Even today, the vicuña was chosen as the national animal of Peru and is depicted on the Peruvian coat of arms. Vicuña wool, which has all the benefits of llama wool but softer and finer, is the rarest and most expensive fabric in the world. It can cost anywhere between $400-$600 US (about $515-770 Canadian) per kilogram of material. Besides its high quality, there are various reasons for its high price.
- Where do vicuñas live? Vicuñas are hard to access. They are wild animals that live at high elevations (3200-4800 m or 10,500–15,700 ft) in mountainous terrain.
- Do vicuñas produce wool? Vicuñas do not produce much wool. Their wool grows slowly and they can only be sheared once every three years. Even then, they only produce about 0.5 kg (1.1 lbs) of wool every shearing.
- Are vicuñas endangered? Vicuñas are no longer endangered, but they’re still rare. In the past, the Inca herded the vicuñas into pens, sheared them, and then released them in a process called chaccu. When the Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they instead hunted the vicuñas. By the 1960s, there were less than 6,000 vicuñas left.
Nowadays, numbers of vicuña have risen to 350,000. In the Lucanas Province of Ayacucho, within the Pampa Galeras – Barbara D’Achille National Reserve (established 1967), 6,000-7,500 vicuña are protected from poaching. The community of Lucanas come together to conduct yearly chaccu to harvest wool, the profits going to support the community.
The Peruvian government has even created a labeling system where clothing created from government-sanctioned chaccu are identified as such. This prevents illegal poaching and shearing, and lets you know that you’ve bought genuine, locally sourced vicuña wool clothes, such as an authentic vicuña sweater or vicuña scarf in Peru.