At four thousand meters above sea level, in the Andes Mountain Range, lies the habitat of the vicuna. And it is especially the region around the Colca that this little animal has chosen as its preferred home to live and reproduce. The scenery is spectacular, with great plains surrounded by imposing volcanos such as Ampato, which is 6,310 m high, accompanied by Sabancaya (5,976 m) and Hualca Hualca (6,025 m) and Huarancante and Chucura which are more than 5,200 meters. The road of Arequipa passes at their feet on its way to Chivay, at the base of an enormous crater.
The vicuña is the animal species which produces the finest natural fiber in existence (", a characteristic which permits the manufacture of extremely light, incredibly soft, very warm and comfortable clothing. As it has not been possible to domesticate this animal and the fiber is so highly valued, it was on the point of extinction in the decade of the 60's, due to indiscriminate hunting.
The vicuña family group, which roams in scattered herds, is made up of one male and from four to six females. These groups are territorial. The female has a gestation period of eleven, months and gives birth to one offspring. The bachelor males, on the other hand, are wanderers, and sometimes gather in herds of from 40 to 50 heads.
The vicuña does not live alone on the heights, but is surrounded by a singular landscape, a striking geography, vegetation suitable to the altitude and climatic conditions of the region, and other species of animals, birds and fish.
The guardian volcanos of the city of Arequipa are Chachani (6.075 m) (which shows the remains of 5 craters; Misti (5.825 m), famous for its elevation and its beautiful conical silouette, with two crowns on its crater; and Pichu Pichu (5.664 m). At the extreme south-west, at the end of Salinas Lake, rises Ubinas (5.672 m), the volcano which exhibits the greatest show of smoke, and sometimes pyroclastics, in Peru. Misti and Sabancaya are also sometimes active to this extent.
There are some lakes and rivers in the area, among which stands out Salinas Lake, at 4,300 m of altitude. It is very extensive and its shallow waters are very saline. Its waterlevel fluctuates with the seasons and in winter, the dry period, it becomes totally dry, at which time the natives extract common salt, chloride and sodium borate.
In summer, when the waters of the lake shine again, it is impressive to see the number of parihuanas or flamingos which gather there. There are possibly more than thirty thousand. Three species which are present are of great importance to ornithologists: the Andean, the Chilean and the James flamingo. There are also some ducks and other birds such as the Andean avocet and plovers.
In Indio Lake, lying near the origin of the Colca, and with characteristics quite different from Salinas, we find a great variety of aquatic birds, among which stand out the Giant Coot and the Andean goose.
There are two important rivers in this area: the Sumbay and the Blanco Rivers, which form the Chili River. Two great dams have been constructed across these rivers to regulate the irrigation of the Arequipa valley. They have formed the two reservoirs Frayle and Aguada Blanca. These are excellent places for trout fishing. This fish has been introduced with great success due to its great powers of adaptation.
Climate and vegetation
Great fluctuations in temperature are characteristic of zones at this altitude. At dawn in winter (June to August)' the temperature drops to as much as 20 or 22 degrees below zero (Celsius) in the shade. The sun's rays are very hot and drying (30° to 40°). Summer (January to March) is the rainy season with approximately 400 mm of annual rainfall. Temperatures vary less and are higher. The average low is 2 or 3 degrees below zero, with maximum temperatures of from 16 to 18 degrees at midday.
Given these climatic conditions at from 3,800 to 4,000 meters above sea level, the characteristic plants are the tola and the ichu. They form a microclimate which makes possible the development of other grassy and leguminous plants, which in turn form the sustenance of the camelidae and other animals. Partridges are generally associated with this type of vegetation, such as the "llutu", the "pisaca" and the "kivio" which lives in the highest zones.
The tola is a dwarf bush which is used for fuel and which has been cut so extensively in some places that it is causing the formation of real deserts. It also has medicinal uses. Father Bernabe Cobo (1582-1657), a priest who studied nature avidly, tells us about the tola: "It is hot and somewhat styptic, very sticky. It has the virtues of joining and holding. Thus a bath of it made with urine and salt removes tumors from the legs of the gouty. Its leaves and green hearts, when wet and applied to bloody wounds, join and dry them. Powdered and mixed with egg whites and salt, it is useful for joining broken bones."
The "ichu" or mountain straw, with its hard prickly leaves, is used for the roofs of houses.
At higher altitudes, more than 4,300 m, the vegetation is small and close to the soil. In humid places small compact plants appear which are cushioned against the soil with an end to keeping them warm and protecting them from the strong frosts. During the day heat from the intense rays of the sun accumulates in the soil. This heat is transferred to the plants during the night and prevents the sap from freezing which would kill the plant. In this type of pasturage, generously watered by abundant streams, it is common to find Andean geese and some types of ducks.
The vegetation on the slopes of the high mountains or on the rocky plains, above 4,500 m, is characterized by the "yareta", a very primitive plant which grows very slowly. It belongs to the umbelliferous family and is of high caloric power (more than 5,000 calories). It is believed that a Spaniard in Potosí was the first to use the yareta as fuel, since the indians had no knowledge of this property. At the beginning of railroad communication between Arica and La Paz it was used as the source of energy in the locomotives, and on an even lesser scale between Arequipa and Puno. Today its use is prohibited in an effort to protect it. Its medicinal properties were known and its resine was used in the form of plasters in cases of pneumonia, rheumatism and the treatment of wounds. Father Bernabé Cobo describes the yareta thus: "It is a plant so shrub-like that it seems neither bush nor tree, though it burns and serves as wood. Nor does it seem to belong with the genera of grasses, because it is only a green spot which is born on the bleak upper regions in the cold lands. It is round and some are as big as a millstone."
On some slopes, those between 3,500 and 4,200 m, trees grow which are called "queñoa" and "koller" or "quishuar". Their biological association with other vegetal species, large and small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects is one of the richest in the Andes.
Forests which were easily accessible to the settlers of the city of Arequipa have been practically destroyed, since they were indiscriminately cut to supply the needs for wood and charcoal. This is the case on the slopes of Misti, Chachani and Pichu-Pichu. Fortunately some virgin forests still exist in spots which are difficult to reach.
Having described the geographic environment and briefly sketched the vegetation existing on the heights and some of the animal species, we can now say that the most important inhabitants and users of these pastures in the high Andes are the South American camelidae. Two of the species are wild, the vicuna and the guanaco, which both live in Peru and are in danger of extinction. The other two, the llama and the alpaca, have been domesticated since before the Incas.
These camelidae, which have a common origin with the came ls, have special characteristics which allow them to take advantage of these little pastures. Their incisive teeth grow permanently and are continually worn away as they browse along the ground ingesting nourishment. They also have a light step because their hooves are cushioned at the base and protected by a horny material. Since the vegetation is scarce and very cellulosic, the camelidae are capable of a high level of nutritional conversion which allows them to transform herbage unfit for other species (such as the bovines) into food adequate for themselves. They can survive many days without water.
In the decade of the 60's there were thought to be no more than 10 thousand vicunas in all Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. This necessitated a program of conservation in order to save the species from extinction. In order to fill this need the National Reserve of Pampa Galeras was established in Nazca. Later, after intense efforts by a conservation group of Arequipa (PRODENA) a second reserve was created, the National Reserve of Salinas and Aguada Blanca. Similar conservation units were created in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Today, a population of more than 100 thousand vicunas is thought to exist, with 80 of the population in Peru.
In the area of the National Reserve of Salinas and Aguada Blanca the estimated population is 4,000 vicunas and some 300 guanacos. The latter species was thought to be extinct in this area, with only a very small population remaining in Peru. The presence of the taruka or Andean deer is also important in this zone. This species is also widely hunted and on the way to extinction. They inhabit rocky zones of difficult access. It is easier to observe examples of the vizcacha, a rather large rodent which is well camouflaged to blend with the rocky habitat where it lives.
Among the flora and fauna briefly described, the figure of the vicuna stands out sharply as the queen and first lady of these great heights. Efforts to preserve the species are destined to save it from the thoughtless destruction of overzealous hunters who appreciate the quality of its fiber for commercial ends without thinking of the possible extinction of an animal species of rich and rare qualities.
(1) The diameter of vicuña fiber is 10 microns whereas that of sheep is over 30. (2) North American is the place of origin. During the Pliocene the South American camelidae moved to the Andes and the dromedary and camel moved to Asia and Africa, all species disappearing from North America.