Guanaco

Guanacos Photo
Most guanacos live in herds composed of family groups or “bachelor” males and females, but some males are solitary.
Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

Wild relatives of the llama, guanacos are humpless camels that inhabit the arid and semi-arid habitats of South America, as well as the Andean forests of Tierra del Fuego. They range from southern Chile to southern Peru, up to elevations of 14,500 feet. Their last remaining stronghold is the Patagonian steppe, a vast, windswept expanse of Argentina and southernmost Chile. To survive in harsh, dry climates, guanacos have a remarkable ability to conserve water and, like other camels, can obtain moisture from the plants they eat.

Most guanacos live in herds composed of family groups or “bachelor” males and females, but some males are solitary. They graze on grasses, leaves and buds, and, as the largest native herbivore in Patagonia, played a key role in structuring native vegetation communities. Their quivery, sensitive lips help them select tender food among thorny and woody vegetation, and their softly padded feet do not damage the soil and vegetation as do the hard hooves of livestock.

Guanacos have been reduced by nearly 95 percent of their original number, which may have been as much as 50 million. Early explorers described long-distance migrations by huge herds, but now guanacos are mostly sedentary, confined by fences, livestock, and hunting. Nevertheless, WCS has discovered three wild sites where thousands of guanacos still make seasonal migrations. Protecting these migrations will simultaneously conserve the last large intact highland areas of South America.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameLama guanicoe
  • Guanacos have thick eyelashes to protect them from dust kicked up by high winds in the semi-arid plains of Patagonia, and padded feet for negotiating rough terrain.
  • They tend to run as a group when threatened by predators such as mountain lions, and can spit up to a distance of 6 feet, with great aim.
  • The Tehuelches, a nomadic, pre-colonial people who once lived in Patagonia, depended on guanacos for meat and wool, and followed migrating herds.
  • Large herbivores used to thunder across the world's vast wild places. Now, only 5 percent of those long-distance migrations remain.

Challenges

During the past century, guanaco populations have declined and become highly fragmented due to poaching, competition with sheep for food, and habitat degradation by sheep and other livestock. Some ranchers kill guanacos because they believe they transmit harmful diseases to sheep. In fact, diseases are usually transmitted in the opposite direction—from sick livestock to healthy, free-ranging guanacos.

Today, about 500,000 to one million guanacos remain in the wild, mostly in Argentine Patagonia, and the species is considered vulnerable. Most guanaco habitat is unprotected and those areas that are protected are generally too small to sustain migrating populations. Overgrazing by livestock and introduced species has resulted in desertification of approximately 30 percent of the steppe. Oil and mineral extraction by multi-national companies destroys habitat, creates roads that provide access for illegal hunters, and reduces water availability and quality. These threats will be aggravated by increased aridity resulting from global warming.

WCS Responds

WCS has worked in Patagonia since the early 1980s. Our groundbreaking research on guanacos has demonstrated how they suffer from competition with sheep, that some populations still make long distance migrations, and that they do not transmit diseases to livestock. Our leadership has helped ensure that guanaco conservation is a central goal of national and regional management plans.

In the Andean Patagonia Steppe Landscape, we are working with government agencies, livestock herders, and oil companies to conserve the largest remaining guanaco migration. WCS is also documenting and protecting guanaco migrations in the remote San Guillermo and Somuncura landscapes, and conserving the unique, forest-dwelling guanacos of the Karukinka reserve in Chilean Tierra del Fuego and the remnant populations of the Bolivian Chaco.

WCS is also working to integrate conservation opportunities for wild guanacos with livelihood opportunities for local people through the humane shearing of their wool. Guanaco wool is thirty times more valuable than sheep fleece, but in order for shearing to serve as a tool for conservation, its ecological and economic sustainability needs to be evaluated, and handling techniques that do not cause great stress to guanacos must be developed. WCS’s Global Health and Patagonian and Andean Steppe programs are collaborating with government scientists to carry out research to evaluate the effects of capture and shearing on survival, behavior, and social structure of guanacos. WCS also sponsored an evaluation by economists from the University of California in Berkeley on the economic feasibility of guanaco shearing.

From the Newsroom

Cashmere's Conscience: Wildlife Friendly Practices in PatagoniaAugust 28, 2012

Patagonian cashmere has gone “green” with a new certification by the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. The business venture supports the local economy while respecting this magnificent yet fragile landscape.

Directions to KarukinkaApril 20, 2012

WCS President and CEO Dr. Steven E. Sanderson recounts his recent expedition to one of the greatest wild places left on Earth: Karukinka, Chile. The trip was part of an effort to preserve this landscape and make it sustainable for generations to come.

Fashion Goes Green in PatagoniaMarch 1, 2012

WCS helps a group of Argentine cashmere producers adopt sustainable husbandry practices that improve their livelihoods while also protecting the guanacos, rheas, and Andean cats that share their turf.

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