Camelid Comeback

Scientists search for ways to save wild cousins on two continents

A female Bactrian camel stands out from her wild Mongolian herd. She sports a tan, leather collar. Last October, researchers installed the tracking device on this two-humped native of the Asian desert steppe. She represents one of the three species of remaining wild camelids in the world. Only 1,500 to 3,000 of the enigmatic Camelus bactrianus ferus roam Mongolia and China. These animals therefore recently received protection from the Convention on Migratory Species (SN: 10/12/02, p. 237: Rare animals get U.N. protection).

ANDEAN GOLD. Locals capture and release vicua back to the wild after shearing their fine fibers to produce luxurious garments. Bonacic/Incalpaca TPX. S.A.
A 1.5-by-.3-meter vicua scarf like this one sells for $400 in Peru. Bonacic/Incalpaca TPX. S.A.
GENETIC BRIDGE. Rama is the first viable hybrid between an Old and New World camelid. His parents’ species–a guanaco female and a domesticated one-humped camel male–have been reproductively isolated for 11 million years. J. A. Skidmore
OLD WORLD WAYS. A female wild Bactrian camel forages on saxual, a hardy, native shrub that feeds her during the Gobi Desert’s extreme winters where temperatures reach –30C. Reading

On the other side of the world, wild camelids called vicua are a little further from the brink of extinction but still objects of conservation biologists’ concerns. The number of Vicugna vicugna in the species’ native countries–Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador–dropped from 2 million in Incan times to around 10,000 in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, these five South American countries signed a collective agreement to protect the animal. And in 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, prohibited the commercial trade of vicua products, from hides to wool.

Today, approximately 220,000 vicua–over half of which live in Peru–graze the high Andes. Remarkably, they have rebounded to the point where governments are permitting citizens to once again capture and shear the animals for their silky fibers, as South Americans had done for centuries. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined CITES in downgrading some vicua populations from endangered to the status of threatened with extinction. For the first time in 32 years, vicua wool and cloth can legally enter the United States.

Just as conservation biologists helped the vicua recover, they hope to protect the wild camels in Asia. The future of both camelids hinges on decisions now being made about their management.

Camelid chaos

Cattle’s last wild ancestor–aurochs–died out in Poland during the 17th century. In contrast, domesticated camelids coexist with their wild forms.

Camelids originated in North America around 30 million years ago and split into two groups 11 million years ago. One group eventually crossed the Bering Land Bridge to Asia where, following an evolutionary path that’s only sketchily understood, it became the two-humped Bactrian camel and the one-humped dromedary.

The other group migrated into South America, where it survives today as wild guanacos and vicuas and domesticated llamas and alpacas. For many years, historians and scientists assumed that the Incas had created both the llamas and alpacas by domesticating the guanaco, which is larger and more widely distributed than the vicua.

While the ancestor of the llama is indeed the guanaco, the ancestor of the alpaca is really the vicua, according to a 2001 genetic study by an international team including Jane C. Wheeler, director of the South American Camelid Research and Development Organization in Lima. Wheeler says that the Incans never hybridized alpacas and llamas after their domestication 6,000 to 7, 000 years ago. “In all of the chaos of the Spanish conquest, there was a complete breakdown of management, ” she says. Within 100 years of the conquest, 80 to 90 percent of South America’s domesticated camelids died off. Since then, Latin Americans have haphazardly crossbred the remaining alpacas and llamas.

Today, only 20 percent of alpacas are genetically pure. The diameter of alpaca fiber has increased significantly, making it less valuable, since the time of Incan rule, says Wheeler.

The Spaniards also began killing vicua, which Incan royalty had ruthlessly protected. Only Incan rulers could wear revered vicua wool.

New World settlers and their livestock also pushed the wild vicua higher into the rugged Andes grassland, where hunters into the 20th century continued to kill them for their pelts. Vicua populations continued to diminish and become fragmented. Fortunately, the vicua’s fiber–with a diameter of 12 micrometers–remains the finest in the world.

Wild vicua?

Today, luxurious vicua garments, such as scarves, are trickling into U.S. markets but with restrictions. Kurt Johnson, a zoologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., says that his agency closely monitors these imports.

Indeed, it recently confiscated 10 jackets containing vicua fiber because their labels didn’t bear the name of the vicua-producing country, as required by CITES.

Johnson’s agency has expressed concerns about a practice that some scientists have called a guise to domesticate the vicua. In Peru, Argentina, and Chile, some animals are being fenced in year-round.

Of all the Latin American countries, Peru shears the most vicua fiber. In 2001, it put onto the international market 4,257 kilograms of vicua wool–valued at up to $500 per kilogram. But catching enough vicua on mountainous terrain at high altitude to meet demand isn’t easy. So the Peruvian government has been constructing 1.6-m-high fences around areas of up to 1,000 hectares each, the size of a typical U.S. ski resort. So far, 250 such enclosures are in place. “Perhaps as much as 40 percent of [the] vicua’s population is in this kind of situation at the moment,” explains Wheeler.

Wheeler says that despite the required 100-m opening in each enclosure, the fences impede passage of roving vicua bachelors and thereby a free flow of genes among vicua populations. Also, problems such as mange and lice are afflicting some fenced-in vicua.

Wheeler and her colleagues have identified four genetically distinct groups of vicua in Peru, but the scientists can’t yet distinguish the groups’ boundaries. “We have gaps in our coverage,” she says.

Scientists worry that permanent fencing could lead to inbreeding, decreased genetic diversity, and thereby a deterioration of vicuas’ wool. A more practical approach for farming wool, they argue, would be to improve the fiber of the vicua’s descendant, the alpaca.

“I really don’t think there is any need to reinvent the wheel and redomesticate the vicua,” says Michael W. Bruford, a geneticist at Cardiff University in England.

But Gustavo Rebuffi says concerns about the fencing are overrated. Rebuffi, a medical veterinarian at the National Institute of Agricultural and Livestock Technology in Abra Pampa, Argentina, has overseen fenced-in vicua since 1964. In that year, researchers captured 16 vicuas as a safety measure in case the animal went extinct. Today, descendants of these animals are spread over 23 farms, each up to 40 hectares in size. On each community-owned farm, 30 to 40 vicuas feed and reproduce naturally, Rebuffi says.

“We are not interested in domesticating the vicua,” he insists. Rebuffi also asserts that the vicuas’ fiber won’t deteriorate because the captive herds “have enough genetic variability to last 800 years.”

Chile is similarly experimenting with two smaller farm programs along with traditional capture-and-release of its 17,500 wild vicua. Cristin Bonacic, a medical veterinarian at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, is currently investigating whether vicuas suffer from chronic stress under captivity. His initial impression, he says, is that “shearing and releasing back to the wild is the one [system] that seems least intrusive and closest to conservation.”

Bolivia stands alone in prohibiting any relocation or fencing of its 56,000 vicuas. “We don’t think that enclosures benefit the wild populations of vicua,” says Alfonso Llobet, chief of the wildlife division in the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Planning in La Paz, Bolivia. But Llobet adds, “Every program has to respond to the reality of the region it is in.”

U.S. officials permit importation of vicua products from any population approved by CITES. “We felt that there was not an effective way to exclude [captive] populations and only allow stuff in from wild populations,” says Johnson. However, special rules will require that captive-farming countries “demonstrate that their management contributes to the conservation of vicuas in the wild,” or their exports will be excluded, he says.

In 2001, the European Union launched a $900,000, 4-year program to help these countries make informed decisions about both captive and wild vicua herds.

Program scientists, including Wheeler, Bonacic, and Jerry Laker, an ecologist of the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, recently met in Peru to review ongoing research. “We’re trying to take an objective look at all potential systems for managing vicua,” says Laker.

Wild in Asia

As in the Andes, international scientists in Mongolia are trying to define the best way to conserve its remaining population of wild camelids. There are only two other fragmented groups of wild Bactrian camels in China, one in the Taklamkan desert and one in an area near Lop Nur.

The wild camel is the largest grazer of central Asia’s deserts. Most biologists consider it the direct descendant of the ancestor of the domesticated two-humped species. Some think that today’s one-humped dromedary also derived from this two-humped camel ancestor. Possible interbreeding of the wild species and the domesticated Bactrian camel has contributed to confusion about the animals’ identity.

The wild Bactrian camel has longer legs, lighter fur, and smaller humps than domesticated camels have. Researchers don’t know the cause of the wild population’s apparent decline over the past several decades.

Wild Bactrian herds are notoriously difficult to study. The camels are shy and live in an environment of extremely hot summers, bitter-cold winters, and little rainfall.

The animals can sense people as far as 5 kilometers away, says Evan Blumer, wildlife veterinarian and director of an organization called The Wilds in Columbus, Ohio.

Blumer recalls trying to capture a camel with an anesthetic dart that had a firing range of 50 m. For 19 days, he sat in blinds near oases, and even using domesticated Bactrian camels as lures, he had no luck. Finally, when he and other researchers mounted an old four-wheel-drive Russian military van and bounced over the desert, they managed to be the first team ever to dart and collar a wild camel.

Last month, satellite transmissions showed the female moving rapidly. In just one day, she trekked north at least 120 km. On another day, she ventured south into China.

“We don’t know some of the most basic aspects of the biology of this species,” says Blumer.

Richard P. Reading of the Denver Zoological Foundation agrees: “We need to get a better feel for what’s happening with the camels and how they function in their ecosystem.” Reading and Blumer have teamed up with scientists at the Mongolian Academy of Science in Ulan Bator and Nature Conservation International in Berlin.

The researchers also aim to dispel the misinformation that abounds about the Asian wild camel, says Blumer. In 2001, for example, the U.N. Environment Program declared that the wild Bactrian camels were a newly discovered species. However, molecular biologist Olivier Hanotte and geneticist Han Jianlin of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, had only suggested that possibility after they found some DNA anomalies in two wild camels.

“[The news] went around the world that a new species had been discovered. Some people forgot about the ‘may’,” says Hanotte. “I knew at the time that it was based on two individuals only. The sample was basically too small to draw any conclusions.”

Last September, the U.N. agency reported that fewer than 1,000 wild camels exist worldwide, but Reading says this estimate was based on spotty surveys done by researchers driving around the deserts. In 1997, Reading and his colleagues flew over the 55,000-square-kilometer Great Gobi Strict Protected Area in Mongolia and estimated that at least 900 wild Bactrian camels live there alone.

Even that count may indicate that the animals constitute a critically endangered species. Reading says the population appears to have few young, but the researchers aren’t sure why. Any number of problems–inbreeding, spontaneous abortions, poor nutrition, or disease–might be to blame. Even healthy Bactrian camels are meager procreators because the birth of a single camel requires a 14-month gestation period.

Another international group, the Wild Camel Protection Foundation in Kent, England, claims that the wild-camel population is dwindling for other reasons, such as drought, poaching, and predation by wolves. The group now wants to increase the number of wild camels by implanting embryos of captured wild camels into surrogate domestic camels. Foundation director John Hare says that the foundation plans to keep the offspring for further breeding or release them into the wild. He says that he’s already raised $85,000 of the $150,000 needed to get the program rolling this year.

The plan is upsetting some scientists, who say the costly, high-tech endeavor is a waste for such a poorly studied animal. “Reintroducing animals back into a situation where you haven’t figured out and addressed the cause of the population decline in the first place is an antiquated view,” says Blumer.

He adds that the wild camels that Hare has said he’ll breed have an unclear history. They were raised in captivity near domesticated animals and may have bred with them. Release of these camels might introduce diseases into wild herds, and their offspring might carry domesticated genes.

“If [the herds] get mixed, maybe we’ll lose a wild genetic source,” worries Tuvdendorj Galbaatar, vice president of the Mongolian Academy of Science.

Galbaatar says that Reading’s team is bringing much-needed conservation biology expertise to Mongolia to solve these sorts of issues. The United Nations and World Bank are funding a 5-year study that includes building a permanent research station in the Gobi Desert.

Later this year, Reading and his colleagues plan to collar more camels and continue genetic studies similar to those that have been done on vicua. The researchers will also collect feces that free-roaming wild herds have left behind. The samples should indicate the animals’ diets and hormone signatures, which could tell scientists something about the camels’ physiology and reproduction.

Reading says, “Technology allows us to move into this very harsh environment and study an animal that’s incredibly shy.”


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