National Geographic : 1981 Jul
Living With GUANACOS Wild Camels of South America ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM L. FRANKLIN WILDLIFE ECOLOGIST, IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY 6 "THAT IS THIS?" I ask myself as I peer from my frigid obser vation hut on a windswept is land of Tierra del Fuego. In a meadow before me, two male guanacos have been disputing the boundary between their territories. Now these wild versions of the familiar South American llama are squaring off in a very unusual way. With measured paces they approach each other and stop. Then, as if on cue, they charge. At the last split second they draw up their front legs. THUNK! Their chests slam together with staggering impact. Biting with large sharp canines, the ani mals tear cruel gashes in each other's necks. One breaks away. There is a short chase, and the vanquished intruder retreats. Rarely in the literature on Lama guanicoe have I come across this. But I'm not sur prised. Until my family and I bade good-bye to Iowa State University and drove our pickup and camper 14,000 miles down the Pan American Highway to this boot-shaped island at the uttermost end of South Amer ica, no biologist had focused on the social be havior of the handsome, adaptable guanaco (locally pronounced wuh-NAHK-oh). This scientific void is surprising in light of the guanaco's importance among South American mammals, which include three other members of the camel family (page 67). Compared to Africa, with its rich diver sity of grazing animals, South America is impoverished. From the western Peruvian Andes to the Patagonian plateau to the beech forests of Tierra del Fuego, the gua naco is the dominant-and virtually lone large wild South American herbivore. For thousands of years, the guanaco was crucial to the Patagonian Indians. Standing five feet tall and weighing 250 pounds, it supplied them with meat for food, wool and hide for clothes and shelter, sinew for sew ing, and images for their mythology. No one knows how many of these arid land aristocrats roamed South America when Europeans arrived, but the number must have been immense. Tens of millions grazed Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, with millions more on the arid Andean slopes. In 1871 naturalist George C. Musters reported guanaco herds 3,000 strong. Food hunters took a toll of the meaty camelids. Hide hunters took even more, favoring the soft cinnamon-colored pelts of young guanacos, called chulengos. Ranch ing dealt a far more damaging blow. Fences interrupted guanaco movements, and com peting sheep displaced them on the ranges. Perhaps a mere 50,000 to 150,000 guana cos survive today on the entire continent. Bundled in loving arms, Ona, a young 45-poundfemale guanaco, is hoisted on . scales by the author'sdaughter Shelly. Dr. Franklin'sbehavioralstudy of the species in Tierradel Fuego-firstof its kind and supported in part by the NationalGeographic Society-sheds new light on this threatened resident of earth's end.