In late December, Zoo Zurich welcomed the arrival of a newborn male Guanaco, named ‘Omar’.
Photo Credits: Zoo Zurich/Enzo Franchini
Wild relatives of the Llama, Guanacos are hump-less members of the Camelidae family 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.
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.