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Vicunas: Bearers of the Golden Fleece

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At 14,000 feet intense sunlight shimmers over a great gray expanse of dry scrub and far-off towering peaks capped by snow. There are no trees, no cover, and nowhere to hide. Some of the villagers begin pointing at a dust cloud moving rapidly down a distant slope. At breakneck speed vicunas emerge from the dust, out-stretched necks thrust ahead of long-legged, lithe bodies.

To view pictures of vicunas, search Google's image database.

Vicunas of all ages race over rough, rocky terrain, parallel to a mile-long rope held by 250 Quechua-speaking Tuccare villagers.  As the vicunas pass, the villagers sing, yell, and wave their arms.  It's as if a choreographer has assigned the roles to people and animals alike.

But the vicunas have been tricked into their performance.  Instead of what they knew to be an immense valley and an often used path, they have been greeted  with a meandering line of humanity that stretches across their escape route.  The herd spins this way and that, searching for a place to slip through to freedom.

In a split second the entire endeavor hangs in the balance. The herd turns directly toward the rope. It appears the lead animal has found an opening. The boldest vicuna breaks from the herd and runs straight toward a gap, but the alert villagers scramble to fill the empty space, and yell and swing clothing above their heads.  The animal loses its nerve, stops in its tracks, and stares at the area where the opening was.  It's nostrils flare.  It's large eyes telegraph intensity and fear.  It lets out a high-pitched alarm call, spins, races through the herd, and leads them in the only direction in which people are not evident-- into a funnel trap that was laid out the night before.

The communal effort of catching large groups of vicunas is known as chacu.  This time-proven method dates back to the ancient Incas, who had annual chacus involving hundreds of thousands of people and animals.  The Incas conserved vicunas, rarely butchered them, and captured them primarily to shear them for their amazingly fine and soft fleece.  Vicuna fleece was seen as so valuable that only the Inca ruler and his court were allowed to wear garments spun form it.  Any commoner caught with vicuna fleece was executed.

The last Inca ruler was killed by the Spanish in 1532, yet the allure and value of vicuna fleece has not diminished.  In today's open market, a pound of raw fleece shorn from a vicuna sells for more than $225, which means that vicuna wool is the world's most valuable natural fiber.

But its precious fleece has worked against the species.  Poachers working in stealth shot whole family groups with such deadly efficiency that by 1974 fewer than 8,000 animals survived in all of the Andes.  With extinction a real possibility for this most diminutive and graceful member of the camel family, conservationists in Peru and the international community responded, and the species was declared endangered.  With its listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), trade in vicunas and their fleece was forbidden.

Antipoaching efforts in Peru, Chile, Argentina, and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia have led to perhaps the most dramatic comeback of any endangered hoofed stock in the world.  Moreover, the program succeeded in an impoverished environment, where the average villager is often hard-pressed to put a meal on the table for his family, let alone worry about supporting a conservation program for local wildlife.

With the Peruvian vicuna head count at more than 103,000 -- around 30,000 in Argentina, 16,000 in Chile, perhaps 16,000 in Bolivia, and a small transplanted herd in Ecuador --the vicuna has rebounded throughout much of its historic range.

But the Peruvian government, which took the lead in conservation, found itself on the horns of a wildlife management dilemma.  By 1993 the argument that the species must be protected at all costs no longer had the clout it once did.  With vicuna fiber offering hope to the cash-poor highlands of Peru -- where well over a million nutritionally, educationally, and medically deprived people live in small, remote communities -- new ideas were needed.

There is no doubt that vicuna fleece is a ready cash crop.  The challenge is managing the cash crop without unwittingly playing into the hands of the cold-hearted commercial poachers, who nearly caused the vicunas demise in the first place.

The vicuna's tightly controlled Appendix I status has been relaxed in recent years to the less restrictive Appendix II in most habitats of Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia.  This change allows commercial harvesting of vicuna fiber but still forbids international exportation or hunting of vicunas.  he challenge facing vicuna policy makers in all four countries is how to allow commercial harvesting in a way that includes indigenous villagers but at the same time discourages the illegal poaching.

In Peru the person at the center of management decisions is Alfonso Martinez, president of Consejo Nacional de Camelidos Sudamericano (CONACS).  He is the person responsible for recommending policies affecting the management of alpacas, llamas, guanacos, and vicunas -- the four South American camel family species residing in Peru and other Andean countries.

Martinez, who grew up as a villager in a region long known for its vicuna herds before attending law school, knows the harsh realities of living in rural Peru and the attitudes toward wildlife.  He became convinced that reviving that ancient chacu and involving locals offered the best chance to draw rural communities into the animal's management and protection.  "People have a financial incentive to protect vicunas for their valuable fleeces, which are shorn every two years," he explains.

Martinez organized the first "new age" chacu in 1993 and invited Peru's President Alberto Fujimori to watch.  Fujimori went home convinced.  In 1998 there were 180 chacus throughout Peru.  Despite working with some 1,500 animals at once, chacus have an impressive safety record: less that 2 percent of vicunas are injured in these operations.  And sheared animals are an unappealing target for poachers.

Martinez negotiated a deal with Peru's prestigious Grupo Inca, a large Peruvian mill.  It was the first to begin processing vicuna fleece into high-end garments in conjunction with the chacu program, which ensures villagers get the lion's share of profits.  And to bolster the rights of the villagers, the Peruvian government has passed laws that designate communities as owners of vicuna herds and of the fleeces produced by the herds.  Formerly, vicunas were state-owned.  Local involvement and ownership are coupled with the deployment of hard-nosed military antipoacher units.

There is no doubt Martinez over sees one of the most innovative wildlife management programs in the world.  What is not entirely clear is how well the program will work over the long haul.

Fernando Corzo, chair of Grupo Inca, endorses the chacu program but worries about the resurgence of poaching and the inconsistencies in the enforcement and safeguards from one country to another.  "Poaching has been diminished because the end product couldn't be  traded legally, but the likelihood of a shadow black market is possible now that harvesting fiber is legal again," he says.  Corzo believes the money to safeguard against poaching can be found in the private sector,  which he represents.  "Integration of private enterprise into government programs to help run a tightly controlled vicuna registry will make poaching difficult.  We need to keep a program in place that clearly identifies where a fleece came from and labels end products as being manufactured from legally harvested fleeces."

Peru has a labeling system that identifies all garments created through a government - sanctioned chacu, but in other countries that do not have fiber-processing plants the ability to follow fiber from animal to end product becomes more problematic.  "For fiber collection and processing to have integrity , the clip and end-product production should occur in the country of origin.  When raw fiber is moved across borders, problems may occur," says Corzo.

There is no doubt that Peru has embarked on an ambitious and well-meaning program.  The final test will occur in the years to come.

For some, its golden fleece is reason enough to save this wild species. "Vicunas run like the wind  and are creatures of God," enthuses Corzo.  "They produce a light garment with exceptional insulating properties.  The fiber has the best luster of all fibers and is the most radiant cloth at any fashion festival." For others, such as Martinez, the animals mean even more:

"Vicunas represent the Andes, the ancient cultures and grace of all wild creatures.  The world would not be the same without the beauty of vicunas."


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