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Sacred animals, wearing “golden armor” in Peru

Deep in the Peruvian Andes, there is an animal the world loves. They belong to the family of llamas but are called Vicuñas, with slender bodies 1.8m tall and glittering fur. Wool made from Vicuña’s fur is warm enough to withstand the extreme Andean temperatures of 4,000m.

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Vicuña has a smooth coat. (Photo: Howard Cheung/Flickr)

In the past, in the Incan empire, Vicuñas were revered. Their wool was considered a golden armor and was reserved only for royalty. For them, shearing is a sacred process, with large herds of Vicuñas being gathered and sheared in a process called Chaccu, but released later. No one is allowed to kill Vicuña.

By 1532, however, the Spaniards had taken over the land and broke its traditions for profit. Vicuña wool was accepted as a profitable commodity equivalent to silk in ancient times. The difference between the Spaniards and the Inca empire was that killing became easier. Millions of Vicuñas have been fiercely poached and stripped of their shells for their precious fur. Only 6,000 Vicuñas remained in 1960, when the Peruvian government declared them endangered. Poaching was banned. A 103 square kilometer Vicuña reserve called Pampas Galeras, in the Ayacucho region.

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This animal was once in danger of extinction. (Ben Davies/Flickr)

For economic development from the golden plumage of Vicuñas. The government encourages commercial activities in such a way that poor households can start making money from them. This will give locals a reason to protect the dwindling numbers of this species. Today, about 200,000 Vicuñas roam freely in the area. Chaccu ceremonies continue to take place in rural communities and remain open to tourists.

The Vicuña’s coat takes years to regrow, which is why clipping only happens about once every two years, with each pup yielding between 200g and 500g of feathers. A kilo of Vicuña wool sells for between $399 and $600. With its highly regarded qualities, only four tons of this wool are exported annually to Italy, Great Britain, Germany and the United States. It’s not uncommon to find the world’s biggest celebrities and fashion brands to take pride in their coats on international occasions.

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Peru exploits tourism from the Vicuña species. (Sergio Otarola/Flickr)

Each hair of this species is about 12 microns, or 12 thousandths of a millimeter. Furthermore, they are also capable of interlocking due to their scales. This means that Vicuña wool can trap heat and air in its fibers. Cashmere, one of the most famous wools in the world, is up to 10 times heavier than Vicuña wool. All of this helps you understand why Vicuña wool is the most expensive wool on Earth.

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