Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 May 2002
The vicuña Vicugna vicugna is a wild South American camelid. Following over-exploitation, which brought the species to the brink of extinction in Chile in the 1960s, the population was protected. Since 1975 the population has been censused annually, generating one of the most extensive long-term census databases for any South American mammal. In this paper we use these data, and measures of environmental parameters, to describe the population growth trend of the species and to estimate carrying capacity. Our results indicate that the vicuña has been protected successfully in northern Chile. The census data reveal that, following protection, the population displayed logistic growth between 1975 and 1992. Population growth rate declined linearly with population size, which indicates a degree of density dependence. Density independent factors, such as rainfall, may also have been important. The principal density dependent effect observed was that birth rate declined in those family groups with the most breeding females. The carrying capacity of the study area was estimated from the census data and from models based on precipitation and local primary productivity. Using the census data, an estimation of carrying capacity as the asymptote of the fitted logistic curve suggested that the vicuña population should reach approximately 26,000 vicuñas, whereas estimation when the population growth rate was equated to zero gave a carrying capacity of c. 22,000. Coe's method based on local precipitation predicted 31,000 vicuña, whereas Lavenroth's method based on local primary productivity predicted 26,000 vicuña. In reality, the census data showed that the population peaked at 22,463 vicuñas in 1990. The results are discussed in relation to the need for better census techniques and the implications of density dependent effects for the management of the vicuña in Chile.