During the ancient empire of the Incas, the vicuna was a sacred animal. Its silken fleece was so valued that killing one was a crime. But the Incas did shear the animals in special ceremonies presided over by the ruling Inca himself. Only nobility were allowed to wear garments made of the fleece.
Today the vicuna, a wild relative of the now-domesticated llama and alpaca, is still a national symbol in Peru. But a debate has erupted over whether the government has neglected the protection of the species by relying too much on a recent program that lets peasants in the Andes shear the vicuna and then sell the valuable fleece on the world market.
Banned in the US market, the fleece sells for as much as $1,500 a pound. A man's blazer made of vicuna costs about $5,000.
The government says it fleecing program undercuts the poachers who kill vicuna to get the fleece. Critics say the killing continues.
Illegal hunters almost pushed Peru's vicuna herd to the brink of extinction - 5,000 - during the 1960s. After various attempts to save the species, Peru sought permission in 1994 from the Geneva-based Conference on International Trade In Endangered Species (CITES) to export fleece sheared from live animals. Unlike elephants killed for their ivory, vicunas can be sheared without greatly harming them.
The government claimed that legally available vicuna fleece would compete with and shrink the contraband trade.
CITES gave its approval, and since then the program to commercialize the fleece of this endangered animal has been hailed internationally.
Since 1994, the herd has risen from 67,000 to more than 120,000, the government claims.
ROAMING wild in the vast valleys of some of the highest and most desolate stretches of the Andes, vicunas are difficult to protect. Under the program, peasants on foot herd them into small enclosures for shearing. They take very little fleece off each animal, leaving it enough to weather the cold.
"Someone had to protect the vicunas in a massive form, and only the campesinos [peasants] who live among them can do this," explains Domingo Hoces, director of the government office that runs the vicuna program.
"But at the same time they wouldn't want to protect the animals unless they knew that they were going to receive a financial benefit. So it was necessary to commercialize the fleece."
In the past few months Peru's newspapers and a leading conservationist have claimed vicuna killings have gone up under government neglect. "This program has been a failure," comments Wilfredo Perez, president of the leading conservation group working on the issue. "Here we are three years after they started the program and the situation of illegal hunts has not changed."
But Hoces attributes the recent wave of articles to nothing more than "journalistic sensationalism and alarm." He insists that, while illegal hunts will always continue at some level, they have not increased.
Mr. Perez says the protection program could be strengthened by exporting only manufactured textiles and not raw fleece, since it is difficult to ensure that the legal exports of raw fleece are not being mixed with illegally acquired stocks. Exporting cloth would also give a bigger boost to the national economy.
But the government maintains the Peruvian textile industry is not equipped to turn out textiles of as high quality as those produced by European companies. It insists all fleece is accounted for and its origin ensured.
The government auctions not only the fleece but the right to manufacture the fleece, thus adding a higher level of security that illegal stocks won't penetrate the legal market.
The vicuna program could be facing far greater problems than the recent criticism, however. At this year's government auction only one bidder came forward, offering little above a base price.
Hoces attributes the poor showing to the Asian financial crisis and to the US ban on vicuna products.
Unless there is a better turnout in future auctions, the government program will be unable to offer campesinos the economic incentives on which the program's potential success depends. In the end, this very lively debate could prove to be largely theoretical.