Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shooting Vicuñas

Next week I am heading to Chimborazo - the highest mountain in Ecuador and the closest point on the planet to the Sun, with thanks to the Earth's Equatorial bulge.

My plan is to shoot vicuñas, a wild relative of the llama, with more than a touch of the deer about it. They are slender, slight and very graceful.

Perhaps for this reason the vicuña was a protected species by Incan law, and is still protected today. Just as well because in the 1970s their numbers dipped to around 6,000. Conservation efforts have boosted the population to around 350,000.

The closest I could get to a vicuña
The vicuña has an extremely warm, soft and fine wool. It is much more expensive than alpaca or llama wool because the vicuñas live wild and must first be caught, not an easy task. To add to its exclusivity, the vicuña can only be shaved once every three years.

But the vicuñas need their warm jackets. During the day the sun keeps them toasty but at night, at 4,500 metres above sea-level, temperatures drop below freezing and the winds whip wild across the Andes.

It's not going to be easy shooting vicuñas. They are very shy and even with a 200mm lens, I need to get close to fill a frame.

I discovered on a practice shoot yesterday how difficult it's going to be. Tracking the vicuñas at this altitude with a heavy camera and a bag full of lenses had me gasping for air. I was at 4,500 metres (according to my Sat-Nav) so it's little wonder. To put this into perspective the highest elevation of the Sochi ski-resort where the Winter Olympics are being held is 2,320 metres.

The vicuña is happy to chew the tough grasses of the paramo with one eye on me... as soon as I reach within 30 metres they scarper up the slop another 100 metres and the whole sorry saga begins once more.

This was the best shot I managed... hopefully next week I'll get more luck.

Wild vicuna at the base of Chimborazo, Ecuador
Wild vicuñas with Chimborazo in the background
It's a bare and brutal landscape at this altitude. Very little grows and at times it can resemble the dead surface of an alien moon.

However, I'm always amazed at how life can thrive in the most hostile climates and discovered a pretty purple flower in bloom.

Volcano Chimborazo with purple flower, Ecuador
Life against the odds at 4,500 metres


  1. That looks like some sort of crocus. A tip for vicuña snapping - try taking some food (I bet they'd love some hay) and build yourself a hide (a small tent would do). Let the vicuña come to you!

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  3. Hello! I'm headed to Ecuador in a couple of months and would like to see Vicunas if possible. Can you recommend where you stayed or where you entered the park? I appreciate any help you can offer!