National Geographic : 1973 Jan
Graceful Andean, a vicufia shows its golden fleece at sunset. In its cloud-scraping abode this little cousin of the camel has few enemies: the fox, puma, dog, and man-the deadliest. Mankind's lust for its silky wool has reduced the vicufia population-which once may have exceeded a million-to no more than 15,000. Happily, new preserves and laws promise to halt the gentle creature's slide toward oblivion. High,Wild World of the Vicuia ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM L. FRANKLIN SINCE FROZEN DAWN we had huddled in a thatched observation shack on the rolling grasslands of the altiplano, two and a half miles above the sea in Peru's Andes. I had come 5,000 miles to observe the behavior of the vicufia, that most beautiful and graceful member of the camel family, and I had not been disappointed. For hours a family group had browsed near us. Now, in the bright spring after noon, they acted out before me the seemingly cruel rite upon which the survival of their kind depends. There were seven in the group: one male, his harem of five, all pregnant, and a lovely female that was almost a year old. No other young were there. As I watched I found out why. The young female was being expelled from the family. Despite pathetic gestures of supplication, in which she bent her knees and arched her long neck in total submissiveness, both parents were rejecting her. Suddenly the male attacked her violently, driving her away from the others. She ran to a hilltop, stopped to look back at her family, now placidly grazing, then turned and walked away. I fol lowed her until night began its slow ascent of the mountains. She did not look back again. She never returned. Thus the last of the previous year's young was exiled, to find refuge in the clan of another male. When the females of her family group dropped their crias, or babies, there would be food enough for all in the carefully defined territory ruled by the young female's sire. Too cold and dry for crops, these high plains today support sheep and two domesticated cousins of the camel: the cargo carrying llamas and the wool-bearing alpacas. This land has always been the natural habitat of their wild relatives, the llamalike guanaco and the dainty white-bibbed, fleet-footed vicufia. The camel family evolved on the grasslands of North America millions of years ago and migrated to Asia and South America. Only two species exist outside the New World: the two-humped Bactrian camel of central Asia and the familiar one-humped camel of North Africa and southwest Asia. The animals we were watching formed part of a herd that inhabits the Pampa Galeras National Vicufia Reserve and adjacent rangelands. Peru established the 15,000-acre reserve in 1966 in an attempt to save these animals, once abundant in the central Andes and now an endangered species.