Vicuna, Inca Gold of the Andes


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The vicuna (Vicugna vicugna) is one of two wild South American camelids, along with the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), which lives in the high Andes. It is a relative of the llama (Lama glama) and the alpaca (Lama pacos). Vicunas produce small amounts (about a pound per year) of extremely fine wool.

The vicuna, at 70-90 cm (28-35 in) and 35-50 kilos (77-110 lbs.), is the smallest of the four and has the finest hair, making it highly valued. During Inca times, the rulers only wore clothing made from the wool of the vicuna, and they only wore the clothing item once. As the Incas were forbidden to kill vicunas, they captured them alive in massive hunts and then sheared them.

Vicunas travel in several different types of associations. Family groups of 8 - 15 individuals travel throughout marked territories, occupying preferred and marginal habitats.

Each group is composed of one dominating adult male that looks after several mothers and their male and female offspring. Males that have been unable to form their own bands, sometimes comprising up to a hundred individuals form a second type of association. These mate-less males constantly engage in bouts with the dominant males of family groups in attempts to establish their own bands.

Chaccu, meaning "round up" in the highland indigenous language Quechua, marked the traditional, corralling and shearing of hundreds of once-endangered vicunas of their fine, highly priced wool.

 

Peruvians Shear Vicunas in Annual Roundup
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.

Saturday, July 15, 2006. Source The Associated Press by Leslie Josephs and Edison Lopez and CNN

PAMPA GALERAS, Peru - 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 miles an hour, 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.

Vicunas chaccu in Pampa Galeras

 

Villages also conduct smaller-scale roundups throughout the Andes' May-September dry season, but the national chaccu is coupled with 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 mountains from Ecuador to Argentina. They were considered sacred by the Inca Empire, which fell after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1532.

Famed for its smoothness, warmth and light weight, the vicuna wool is untangled and sold by the Lucanas peasant community to exporters for $285 a pound, said Miguel Penafiel, president of the hilly community in Ayacucho state, 370 miles (410 kilometers) southeast of Lima.

While 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 around 200,000, aided by a combination of conservation measures, regulations and economic incentives for highland villagers to shear wool without killing the animals and regulating 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, some 12,500 feet above sea level, slowly driving about 1,500 vicunas into a corral.

Herds of vicunas darted nervously along a southern Andean plain Saturday, trying to escape an advancing human chain during the 14th annual National Chaccu.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 some 7,500 almond-eyed vicunas on the Pampa Galeras, where the animals feed on tufts of 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 like education and health care, 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.

Penafiel said the shearing festival has historic roots, but more practically it "is very important and beneficial for our community" because the expensive wool is a renewable resource.


See also:

Vicunas - Pampa Galeras

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Last updated: November 2, 2007