With a little help

the Peruvian Army has embarked on a new defence mission: guarding the vicuna, a woolly animal that is an ancient symbol of Peruvian identity. The scientific name of this distant cousin of the llama is vicugna vicugna . It has been celebrated richly in Peruvian literature and memorialised on the national seal.

Peruvians have always taken the vicuna seriously. In the days of the Inca empire, cloaks made from vicuna fur were reserved exclusively for the royal family and killing of vicuna was a capital offence. Animal lovers have derived a aesthetic pleasure from watching the elegant animal roam in the wild. The legendary Latin American leader Simon Bolivar so admired the vicuna that he decreed poachers serve a 4-month jail sentence for each animal they killed.

But several Maoist guerrilla groups see the vicuna as a hated emblem of a decadent capitalist state. Waves of relentless, scorched-earth raids were launched by the subversives on the Pampa Galeras reserve, the main vicuna refuge. With the police and the army busy fighting the insurgents, poachers slaughtered vicunas by the thousands. Traffic in the highly prized fur of this endangered species increased steeply. By the early 1990s, less than 50,000 animals were left in Peru, home to about two-thirds of the world's vicuna population.

The counter-insurgency campaign in Peru has coincided with a conservationist one; the vicuna is making a comeback. The recent success of the Peruvian army's assaults on guerrilla ranks and its all-out campaign against poaching has kindled a population boom among vicunas. Numbers have increased to about 90,000 animals. The thriving vicuna packs are also becoming a part of Peru's economic reconstruction effort. Mountain communities ravaged by the civil war can earn a living by processing vicuna wool for luxury-apparel designers.

In Ayacucho, the mountainous province that has been the main breeding ground for both the vicuna and guerrillas, a population of about 30,000 vicunas fell to less than half during the 1980s. However, the early 1990s marked a turning point in the war to save the Peruvian state, and the vicuna. The government turned over the ownership of the vicuna to the Andean villages. Privatising the vicuna was the first step toward creating a renewable vicuna industry.

With the guerrilla threat having diminished, villagers are rediscovering ancient rites involving the vicuna. Since 1994, Lucanas and neighbouring Andean communities have revived an Inca tradition known as