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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Live-Shearing South America’s ‘Camels’ Might Help Protect Them

   guanacoA guanaco ponders the scenic beauty of Patagonia. Photo by Jenny Martinez/USFWS

You’ve heard of llamas, right? These cute domesticated pack animals are just one of the more well-known camelids (species of camels) that have inhabited South America for many centuries and at one time played a key role in the survival of indigenous communities in the region. Relatives of llamas include other camelid species – the vicuñas and alpacas – which are famous for their high-quality wool from which clothing is produced. Less known, perhaps, are guanacos, the wild relative of the domesticated llama.

Guanaco numbers have declined steadily since the arrival of Europeans in South America in the 1800s. Much like bison were an even more iconic fixture of the American West, guanacos once numbered 30 million to 50 million, migrating up and down the coasts and vast Patagonian steppes of the Southern Cone region of South America. Although small populations remain in Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay, today the Patagonian regions of Chile and Argentina have the largest populations of guanacos. Patagonia is a region located at the southern tip of South America with a diverse set of terrain and habitats ranging from deserts to temperate rainforests. Argentina alone is home to approximately 80 percent of all guanacos, with only approximately 1 million remaining on 25 percent of their original range.

So what happened? To understand better, first let’s talk about some guanaco basics.

   guanacosPhoto by Richard Ruggiero/USFWS

Guanacos are Built to Roam

Guanacos live in herds and are herbivores. They eat grasses, shrubs and some cacti. Like other camelid species, they can get most of, if not all, the water they need from their food. They also have very large hearts relative to their size and about four times as many red blood cells as humans. These physical traits allow them to climb to high elevations in mountain ranges where there is less oxygen and potentially even freezing temperatures and snow. But they can also live in deserts along the coasts. They are highly adaptable and can live in a range of conditions but tend to seek out areas that look like the best spots to forage.

Not surprisingly, people are interested in the value of the grazing areas used by guanacos. Over time, the introduction of fencing to contain livestock like sheep on ranches has reduced the amount of land available land to guanacos. In most cases it has drastically altered their migratory routes. As a consequence, many ranchers perceive guanacos as a nuisance and competitors for potential grazing lands. This has encouraged poaching of guanacos and has contributed to their decline, as has the loss of habitat.

   guanaco on fenceGuanacos can become caught in fences and die. Photo by Bryan Arroyo/USFWS

An Economic Boost that Might Change the Conservation Equation for Guanacos

Through our International Affairs South America Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supports its partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in helping protect guanacos and other wildlife that are part of the Patagonian region. One of the ways to accomplish this goal is by implementing strategies that also benefit people. To generate more income for ranchers and families in Patagonia, WCS recently began working with an organization called the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN) to promote “Certified Wildlife Friendly” wool.

By working with WCS and other partners to adopt wildlife friendly practices, ranchers and communities can obtain the certification that yields a higher profit for the wool produced by their livestock. These practices allow Patagonian animals like guanacos, rheas (an ostrich-like bird) and maras (large guinea pig-like rodents) to co-exist with sheep. They also help protect predators such as pumas, chilla foxes, and Geoffroy’s and pampas cats because ranchers instead use non-lethal methods to control predation of their livestock. In short, by helping to generate more income for people, it makes protecting wildlife a win-win.

“We’ve had keen interest in this wool from the sustainable fashion industry,” said Julie Stein, executive director of WFEN, which had six founding corporate members.

   sheep and guanaco
Sheep and guanacos can both produce “Certified Wildlife Friendly wool.” Photo by Guillermo Harris/WCS

But new live-shearing techniques could also help change the perception of guanacos among land owners and livestock producers in Patagonia. The fibers of guanacos are highly valued – on par with vicuña and alpaca fibers – and can be used to make luxury fabrics and clothing. In recent years WCS has worked on refining techniques that include rounding up guanacos and shearing them so that that their fibers can be sustainably harvested. This is done without causing significant stress or harm, based on methods that WCS helped to develop in prior years. WCS plans to help communities develop a stronger market for these valuable fibers, but also recognizes that the deep cultural roots of sheep farming will continue to be the immediate bedrock of the Patagonian economy.

So the next time you think about camels – or purchasing a sustainably produced, high-quality wool garment that will last you a lifetime – remember that South America has some very interesting varieties of camelids that provide a valuable example of how wildlife can play a role in strengthening local economies.

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