In Peru, Vicuna Is Sacred Cash Cow
Hundreds of villagers march side by side across the wind-blasted Andean plain, closing in on their prey: herds of nervous, fast-moving vicunas -- the smaller, wilder cousins of llamas and alpacas.
Chanting and shaking a long rope with colorful streamers, the participants encircle the shaggy-coated animals in a ritual that was known to the ancient Inca but nearly abandoned in the 20th century.
For decades, poachers seeking the world’s most valuable wool simply shot vicunas rather than struggle to trap the elusive animals that can run 30 mph, and by 1964 their numbers had dwindled to just 12,000.
But today, vicunas are captured, shorn and released. The main event is Peru’s national chaccu -- an annual roundup that is both a renewed expression of indigenous culture and a triumph for an international campaign to save the once-endangered animals.
Villages also conduct smaller-scale roundups throughout the Andes’ May-September dry season, but the national chaccu is the main event and is accompanied by a three-day cultural festival.
“The vicunas are no longer in danger of extinction, and we are protecting them and reinforcing their presence,” said Wilder Trejo, president of the National Council of South American Camelids.
Hundreds of thousands of the animals once roamed the Andes from Ecuador to Argentina. They were considered sacred by the Inca Empire, which fell after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1532.
Famous for its smoothness, warmth and light weight, vicuna wool is untangled and sold by the Lucanas peasant community to exporters for about $285 a pound, Miguel Penafiel, the community’s president, told the Associated Press.
Although market prices vary, vicuna fiber is the most expensive wool in the world, far more pricey than cashmere, which sells for $32 a pound, said Antonio Brack, a leading Peruvian ecologist.
For centuries, hunters killed the elusive vicuna for its wool and leather rather than shear it live. The species was on the brink of extinction by 1964, when Peru’s government established the Pampa Galeras National Reserve -- today the principal sanctuary for the species.
Peru’s vicuna population has risen to about 200,000, aided by a combination of conservation measures, regulations and economic incentives for highland villagers to shear wool without killing the animals and the regulation of markets for the product.
International trafficking of the wool was severely restricted for several years. The United States lifted a ban on vicuna wool imports only four years ago.
During this year’s 14th annual chaccu in Pampa Galeras, villagers joined with a few tourists from as far as Germany to walk four miles along the windy pampa, about 12,500 feet above sea level, slowly driving about 1,500 vicunas into a corral.
The vicunas were sheared beneath a cloudless sky, under a cliff where a rainbow-colored wiphala flag -- the symbol of Andean indigenous peoples -- rippled in a forceful gale. A Peruvian dressed as an Inca king held the first bundle of cinnamon-colored wool above his head as several hundred spectators applauded.
“I didn’t think it was going to be so ceremonial,” said Allison Caine, a 21-year-old junior from Bates College in Maine who is writing her senior thesis on the vicuna. “I just thought they would just round up the vicunas and shear them and I would have to dig for that cultural aspect.”
For three days, villagers participated in a variety of festivities, including traditional dances and an outdoor concert in the town square at Lucanas despite near-freezing temperatures -- a chill that people warded off with strong aguardiente, a sugar liquor.
Musicians played huayno, a popular genre of highland music, and peasant women competed for the honor of best queso fresco, a salty, white cheese common in Peru’s Andes.
During the year, the 800 people in Lucanas, a hilly town in Ayacucho state, 370 miles southeast of Lima, protect about 7,500 almond-eyed vicunas on the Pampa Galeras, where the animals feed on feather grass.
The peasants mostly grow potatoes and corn. No individual receives money from the selling of the wool, and the funds are invested in town services such as education and healthcare, Penafiel said.
He said the community sold 1,870 pounds of vicuna wool in 2005, earning the town more than $625 for each of its residents, a significant sum in a country where more than half of the 27 million inhabitants live on less than $2 a day.
The shearing festival has historic roots, Penafiel said, but more practically it “is very important and beneficial for our community” because the expensive wool is a renewable resource.