On 1 January 2024, zoo curator and biologist Lena Bockreiß became the coordinator for the international and European conservation breeding programmes for vicuñas. Since then she has been tasked with the responsibility of deciding who should mate with whom and how often. The population management of vicuñas in zoos around the world will now be coordinated from Hellabrunn with the ISB (International Studbook) and the EEP (EAZA Ex-situ Programme).
What type of animal is a vicuña? It is a South American camelid with a woolly light brown coat that is often confused with another closely related species from the same region, the alpaca. But while the alpaca is a domesticated animal, its ancestor, the vicuña, is a wild species that lives in the very high alpine areas of the Andes. Roaming at altitudes of up to 5,000 m, it is the highest living ungulate. Hellabrunn Zoo is home to three vicuñas who live in the South America enclosure together with capybara, Darwin's rhea and maras.
There are 322 vicuñas living in zoos worldwide (as of the end of 2022), or more precisely, in 81 animal parks. Data and facts about these animals are registered in the EEP for the species, which has been managed at Hellabrunn Zoo since 1 January 2024, following the appointment of curator and biologist Lena Bockreiß as EEP and ISB coordinator for vicuñas. She takes over the studbook from Dr Christian R. Schmidt, who was previously in charge of population management for several decades.
This means that extensive data about zoo-dwelling vicuñas will now be collected at Hellabrunn. But the role not only involves data collection, Lena Bockreiß will also be responsible for making breeding and transfer recommendations. The registration data gives her an overview of how many animals live in each zoo, the gender composition of each zoo population and which vicuñas are suitable to pair for mating. “It is very important that genetic diversity is maintained and that groups put together live in optimal conditions. In addition, transfer recommendations are made annually, with factors such as transport conditions and cross-border veterinary issues taken into account,” said Lena Bockreiß.
Today’s global zoo population of vicuñas was established by just four males and eight females imported from South America between 1949 and 1971. There are now over 300 healthy individuals living in animal parks around the world. To ensure that it stays that way, keeping a studbook is essential. But data on breeding and transfer recommendations is not the only information gathered as part of the EEP. Dr Christian R. Schmidt, who managed the studbook from 1985 to 2023, found that the main birthing season in the northern hemisphere, from August to October, shifted by exactly six months compared to that in the southern hemisphere. Even in the 6th generation, almost 80 percent of all zoo-born vicuña crias are born in the morning. Just like in the wild, where giving birth at this time of the day is crucial for survival of the young.
“All the data that we record as part of the EEP ultimately serves to improve animal welfare and knowledge about the species,” added Lena Bockreiß. “Vicuñas are currently not endangered according to the IUCN Red List, but they were severely threatened in the 1960s. Thanks to international conservation efforts and breeding successes in zoos, the populations in the wild have since recovered.”
In addition to the EEP for vicuñas, Hellabrunn Zoo also coordinates the monitoring, a preliminary studbook stage, for white-blotched river stingray as well as the ISB and, until 2023, the EEP for drill. In total, there are EEPs for over 400 animal species.
“Thanks to a well-managed EEP that ensures healthy animals and an optimal gene pool, we as a zoo can also contribute to strengthening the populations in the wild by making animals available for reintroduction. This is active species conservation, the most important pillar of a scientifically-led zoo,” said zoo director Rasem Baban.