THE vicuña is one of the most graceful animals in the world. You can forget that it is a member of the camel family; for except as a scientific classification, the vicuña-camel comparison is completely misinforming. A vicuña resembles a small, slender llama, having the same aristocratic neck and head. But its archaic habits, its nervous temperament, its manner of life, so unlike that of any other animal, leave it completely isolated in the animal kingdom.

The Strook Weavers, dealers in fine wools, have called vicuna wool, “the finest of all the world’s textiles.”Unfortunately, there is precious little to be had in the world. To begin with, the vicuna is small. It stands only about three feet high and weighs about a hundred pounds. Sheared, it gives about half a pound of the warmest, softest, and most durable wool a princess ever wore. A good sheep, raised for the purpose, will give about twenty pounds. Except under the belly, where it is white, vicuna wool is brown. It is extremely difficult to dye it any other color and not have the brown show through.

To see a vicuña requires a journey to South America. From Ecuador to the extreme northwest of Argentina, and in the Andean part of northern Chile, on the cold, bleak mountain plains, herds of vicuna are still found.

In that rarefied air, at an elevation of fifteen thousand feet, their food grows close to the ground. In eating, their teeth are filed on the earth to small sharp stumps. At the presidential palace in Lima, where a few were kept as pets, their teeth were filed artificially, and that may account for the success of the palace in keeping them alive. Most domesticated vicuñas are short-lived, and overgrown teeth may well be a contributing reason.

In the hills, a single male is in charge of a harem of about twenty females. He guards the herd, leads them, and puts them to flight at the approach of danger. Should he see you approach (and concealment is difficult in that barren land) he would whistle — a piercing, childlike sound of terror and alarm. Then, like a flock of bouncing balls, the vicuñas would be off with amazing speed and grace.

Hunters, long since barred by law, made a practice of trying to shoot the male who led the herd. Immediately, the group would stop and return to the body, sniffing and mourning. They would not leave their sire, and it was then possible to catch them alive by lasso. If the hunter killed a female, the herd would stop only long enough to identify the fallen one, and would then continue its flight. However, their utterly female temperament leads them to the suicidal practice of halting the flight now and then to stare curiously at the hunter.

The vicuña was hunted, of course, for its beautiful and luxurious wool, which is much like cashmere. Among the Indians, a poncho of vicuña wool is a highly prized possession. It is phenomenally warm and virtually waterproof when tightly woven. The highly civilized Incas made many of their clothes from this wool, and declared the animal national property, reserved for Inca royalty. The wool has many uses and forms, but it is best when used in the form of a spun fiber.

The legal aspects of vicuña wool are somewhat confusing, the situation being much like that of intoxicating liquors in our prohibition era. The Peruvian government, which controls most of the source, bids you not to buy, sell, or possess vicuna wool. But the high sierras are a wild land, and the plain fact is that you can buy pounds of the wool in the mountains for what amounts to just a few dollars. Strook, which imports vicuña under government license, buys all it can possibly obtain, and that’s just a dribble. You see handbags and rugs in South American shops, but legitimate pieces bear a government stamp. In Bolivia, vicuña is legal traffic and some over-theborder smuggling probably takes place.

The vicuña has not only been protected by governments from Simon Bolivar’s to those of modern South America: the female is equipped to fight a battle to the death. Her small hoofs, pointed and sharp, together with her razor-like teeth, speed, cunning, and temper, make her a very dangerous adversary. In battles with the larger and stronger llama, the vicuna has succeeded in disemboweling her foe. In the rare instances of captivity, she has expressed her feelings toward her protector, Man, by spitting in his eye.

She reproduces during the summer and autumn months. Her kids, with devastating charm and beauty, walk and even run when they are only a few days old. They suck for about six months. At the end of a year, if they are so unfortunate as to be males, they are kicked and persecuted until they leave the herd. Only one male, the toughest and most virile, remains. The selection is usually accompanied by considerable struggle and bloodshed. The exiled males form themselves into masculine herds which are an extremely wild and bad-tempered lot.

In spite of these strange, wild habits, attempts have been made to domesticate vicunas and herd them like cattle. Most have been complete failures. But in the Puno district of Peru a Senor Paredes has had considerable success. He has a herd of 320 vicunas and confidently expects to double it in a couple of years. His methods are a matter of great professional secrecy.

If you have your heart set on a blanket or an overcoat of vicuna wool, the chances of getting it are pretty small. Unless you happen to be shopping around in the sierras at the moment, you’ll have to depend on exports — and only a few hundred pounds leave South America to supply a world market. Before the war a New York department store offered a yard of vicuña wool for seventy dollars. And that was before the war. . . .