Pacovicuna ? a cross between the alpaca and the vicuna ? is viewed by some in Peru as an animal that could have huge potential commercial value. However not everyone agrees as they believe the development could damage the future of the vicuna and that the trade in pacovicuna fleece will always be restricted by its cinnamon colour. Francis Rainsford reports.
Pacovicuna is the name given to the cross between an alpaca and a vicuna. Technically a, pacovicuna is a hybrid alpaca that exhibits the phenotypical traits of vicuna. Historically, and by ?accidents of nature? these animals have existed for some time in small numbers in Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
The pacovicuna possesses a fleece weight of 700g, fibre fineness of 14-17 microns and a fibre length of 35-50mm. Expert breeders point out that today?s alpacas are actually descendants of animals originally domesticated from vicunas some 7,000 years ago and some vicuna traits can still be found in the alpaca herds that exist today in the high Andean plateaus of South America.
Since July 2007, reports have been circulating that indicate apparent interest by the Peruvian government?s Ministry of Agriculture in breeding large numbers of pacovicunas as a viable addition to the other camelids already produced in this country.
Of the four traditional breeds of camelid, two are domesticated (alpaca and llama) and two are wild (vicuna and guanaco). The vicuna is particularly renowned as one of the finest animal fibres in the world. However, being a wild animal, it is difficult to maintain in captivity, where breeding, birthing, general medical care and so on are a costly challenge. It is also a threatened species, which makes the animal and its fibre difficult to obtain ? the species is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Wild Flora (CITES).
Pacovicuna is considered more domesticated than wild, thus reducing the high production costs of ?farming? a wild breed such as vicuna, and providing a viable solution to the problem of poverty experienced by traditional alpaca farmers in the country?s altiplano region.
Pacovicunas, too, until at least the fourth generation (F4) must also comply with CITES. So, for example, if an alpaca-vicuna hybrid is found to contain just 6.25% of vicuna blood (that could occur up to F4) it is governed by the same legal restrictions as if it were a pure 100% vicuna. However, generations of pacovicuna after F4 are generally considered more domesticated than wild (i.e. alpaca as opposed to vicuna) thus freeing them from the CITES regulations.
The present Peruvian government?s proposal is not new. The first such attempt to breed pacovicunas as a means to improve income for alpaca farmers was carried out during the 1840?s by an enterprising Catholic priest, Don Juan Pablo Cabrera. His pioneering efforts were recognised by the government, but the project was eventually abandoned, and the vicunas were let loose and ?merged? with the alpacas in the Altiplano.
More recently, pacovicunas have been bred by enthusiasts in the US, where, by identifying the various traits of vicuna in alpaca and selecting the alpacas with these traits, these animals can be bred together to amplify the vicuna traits, such as fibre fineness. Conversely the same can be done for any desired alpaca traits needed, such as faster growing fibre and the animal?s calm demeanour. Thus, by identifying those alpacas that have the particular traits required and breeding them together, a successful resultant pacovicuna can be produced more or less to order.
The idea of producing pacovicunas on a commercial scale has divided Peru?s commercial sector down the centre. Arguments in favour of pacovicuna come mainly from the camp occupied by government officials and local leaders and focus on the economic advantages related to its fibre qualities and productive advantages ? namely its fleece weight of 700g being considerably heavier than the vicuna?s average 200g fleece; its fibre fineness of 14-17 microns being markedly finer than the alpaca?s range of 22.5?34+ microns and its fibre length of 35-50mm being greater than the vicuna?s span of 15-40mm.
Rural communities already experienced in the production of vicuna fibre see extra pacovicuna production as a means of increasing the critical mass of similar fibre to the marketplace as well as increasing their potential earnings. Luis Guerra, a spokesman for the Huayhua community in the region of Ayacucho says: ?I feel sure that if the government could provide us with technical and management training, we could sell both vicuna and pacovicuna directly to foreign buyers. At the moment we?re in the hands of brokers who pay is between US$105 and US$140 per kg and who then export it themselves at much higher prices?.
Those opposed to the proposal tend to be scientists and conservationists. One of the leading critics is the Argentinian Gabriela Lichtenstein, president of the Group of Specialists for Wild Camelids (GECS), of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (UICN). Lichtenstein believes that single mating between pure vicunas and descendants of the hybrid will lead to an irreparable contamination of the pure species, causing a genetic rebound in its preservation and quality of fibre.
Lichtenstein is joined in her opposition by Alonso Burgos, general manager of Pacomarca S.A. ? a company in the south of Peru that carries out projects of genetic experimentation with alpacas ? and Lima based leading biologist and archaeologist Dr Jane Wheeler. They both view pacovicuna as an aberration that will hinder the ongoing commercial exploitation of the alpaca. Furthermore they dread the pernicious consequences of pacovicunas escaping into the wild and crossing with free vicunas.
During last year?s XII Technical Vicuna Agreement Meeting held in Bolivia, ministerial delegates from Andean countries agreed not to support any project or measure favouring the production of pacovicuna. Bolivia?s vice-minister for diversity, forestry resources and the environment, Juan Ramos said: ?Approval of genetic innovation of the pacovicuna breed, such as it is, as currently carried out by breeders in Peru and the US was turned down on the grounds of probable biological, ecological and social consequences?.
For its part, Peru?s alpaca fibre processing industry is concerned that, like vicuna, the pacovicuna fibre comes in basically one colour ? cinnamon ? which only permits the dyeing of dark shades in a fashion-driven market that favours whites and pastels as a rule. It opines that, rather than going to all the trouble, risk and expense of creating a new fibre, surely it would be more sensible to invest in improving something that is already in plentiful supply.
Peru produces 4-5 million kg annually of alpaca fibre with an average fleece weight of 3.5kg, a fibre length of 75-140mm and a range of over 20 commercially reproducible natural colours, including white. Its current commercial drawback of competing head-to-head in the marketplace with the likes of cashmere and others is its poor fibre fineness, currently averaging 27.5 microns. However, Jane Wheeler observes that in pre-Columbian and Inca times, its average fibre fineness was around 17 microns and that, with genetic improvement techniques, it should be possible to return to this level of fineness.
Perhaps, before proceeding further with pacovicuna, the Peruvian government would do well to take heed of a parallel example from the world of cashmere where, some years ago, breeders crossed the cashmere goat with the mohair producing angora goat. The resultant hybrid was named Cashgora. The resultant fibre was supposed to possess all the best characteristics of both cashmere and mohair but cashgora has never reached the marketing goals envisaged for it and today has ended up becoming a classification for coarse cashmere. In fact, the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute classes only fibre not exceeding 19 microns as cashmere and everything in excess of this is cashgora and, as such, not entitled to be labelled ?cashmere?. A salutary warning if ever there was one.
This article was first published in Twist, the new Wool Record.