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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
Go to Vicuna
History and Facts