Issue of March, 27, 2004
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Peruvian Indians Save the Once-Endangered Vicuña
By Abraham Lama

In the 1960s, there were just 25,000 of these camelids left. Now the vicuña population in Peru is growing eight percent a year and the species is no longer in danger of extinction, thanks to their protection in the hands of local indigenous communities.

LIMA, (Tierramérica).- The vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), a delicate and handsome cousin of the llama that lives wild in the Andes Mountains at altitudes of more than 4,000 meters, is no longer threatened with extinction, thanks to the decision by the Peruvian state to hand authority over these animals to the indigenous communities.

In 1965, the international community was alarmed by estimates that only 25,000 of this species, native to Peru, were left. The vicuñas were pushed on to the endangered animals list by bands of poachers who shot and killed them for their precious wool.

The wool of the vicuña has turned into one of the most expensive fibers in the world, with prices ranging from 437 to 650 dollars per kilo.

The lower price "corresponds to so-called dirty wool, that is, the wool direct from the animal," and the higher price is that of cleaned and processed wool, Rony Garibay, expert from the government's National Council on South American Camelids (CONACS), told Tierramérica.

In 1975, the vicuña was added to the list of the Conventional on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, which banned the trade of wool and clothing made from its wool.

But that was not enough. In 1987, ownership of the wild herds of vicuña was handed over to the local indigenous communities.

Today there are 149,000 vicuña in Peru and 15,000 in Bolivia, and it is considered a species free of risk of extinction if the current protection mechanisms remain in place, which have allowed the population to grow eight percent annually.

CONACS believes that this approach to management could lead to a population of 300,000 within a few years, says Garibay.

Antonio Brack Egg, an expert on vicuña, cites even more optimistic and ambitious figures: by 2021 there could be a million of these animals in Peru, and there are 10 million hectares of appropriate Andean mountain pastures.

"It is not an excessive figure, because it is estimated that in the times of the Inca there were around two million vicuña," although "it is clear that the Incan Empire covered territories that now belong to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile," he added.

Vicuña wool is 10.8 to 11.4 micros (thousandths of a millimeter) thick, even finer than cashmere, which comes from an Asian goat, and is 16 micros thick.

These cousins of the llama and the camel do not reproduce in captivity, and live in areas that are not suitable for conventional agriculture or livestock practices. As such, the only way to ensure their survival is to protect the conditions of their life in the wild.

In the Inca era, it was prohibited to sacrifice this animal, because it was property of the king. During the colonial period, they survived protected by traditional indigenous respect.

The Incas trapped the vicuña in 'los chacos', a festive massive ceremony in which hundreds of people, forming a human chain, would herd them -- without causing them harm -- into temporary corrals where the animals were sheared.

These delicate animals suffer serious harm if caught with a lasso, and because they produce relatively little wool (around 200 grams per animal), massive shearing operations are needed to make it worthwhile.

In the early 20th century, the major Paris fashion designers discovered the virtues of vicuña wool, which sparked a high demand and the uncontrolled persecution of the species. In order to make the shearing process easier, the poachers would chase the animals in trucks and then kill them all once they were corralled.

In the 1940s, the first Peruvian government actions related to protecting the vicuña was to declare it a national heritage species, prohibit hunting and provide small sums in compensation to indigenous communities for the forage the animals consumed on their land.

Protection of the herds was entrusted to the rural police, but they proved insufficient in number to patrol the areas, and the Indians were not directly involved in the effort.

In 1987, along with the official decision to hand ownership of the wild herds over to the indigenous communities, official agencies were set up to support the marketing of vicuña wool through cooperatives or mixed companies.

The approximately 200 indigenous communities that own the vicuña are prohibited from killing them, and may only shear the animals every two years, under government supervision.

"We are working so that the communities will one day export the combed and carded fibers, but reaching that point will be a long process, because their local governments are always strapped for cash and want to sell the wool immediately after shearing," said Garibay.

The Indians are organized to protect the herds and have set up patrols that carry firearms to scare off potential poachers.

Once a year, after the "pagapaga", the individual ceremony of thanks to "pachamama" (Mother Earth), the residents of each village take part in the ancient and festive traditions of the "chacos".

The human chains, amidst songs and the beating of drums, guide the vicuña from the plains to the corrals where they will be shorn of their wool, under the watch of CONACS supervisors, and often observed by invited environmentalists and journalists.

* Abraham Lama is a Tierramérica contributor.

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