Return of the Golden Fleece

Peru's elegant vicuñas thrive once again, but are they as wild as ever?

  • Tui De Roy
  • Jan 01, 2002
HIGH IN THE ANDES of Peru, curtains of steam rise from still-frozen ground where last night's snowfall lingers in crusty patches. Unperturbed by a chill wind, caramel brown vicuñas dot a sparse valley sandwiched between ice-clad peaks. Here, between 12,000 and 17,000 feet elevation, these distant relatives of Old World camels graze, play, fight and rest--a primal spectacle of wild abundance. Yet, as morning sunshine intensifies the colors in this misty scene, a hint of human involvement intrudes: The changing light reveals some of the animals have bright yellow, plastic tags in their ears.

Herein lies a conundrum for the vicuñas: Although still truly wild, these prized animals, which bear the finest and most valuable wool in the world, owe their protection to the native Indian communities whose legal property they have recently become. But as these people attempt to attain a better life for themselves through sound use of the elegant species in their charge, they risk removing the wildness that helps define the very essence of what vicuñas are all about.

The animals in question are lithe yet hardy creatures superbly adapted to their harsh high-altitude landscape. In March, breeding fervor reaches its peak. Under the ever-watchful eyes of territorial males posturing on hillocks like regal sentries, tight family clusters nibble diligently at ice-encrusted, spiky cushion plants amid the ground-hugging blooms of white daisies and deep blue gentians.

Three-week-old babies, Bambie-eyed and swaddled in plush coats of pale wool, already show their spunk by ignoring their fathers' territorial boundaries and gamboling together to practice skills that will prepare them for adult vicuña society. They prance, kick, bite and leap at each other playfully on long spindly legs.

Further down the valley, subadult males mirror their actions in earnest, testing their mettle against each other in hopes of someday gaining a territory and family of their own. Screaming and growling like fighting stallions, two of the contestants break away from the main group and streak up a steep rocky ridge, kicking and spitting all the way. They sail over rough boulder fields at a steady 30 miles per hour as if they were running on air. On ground that would halt any galloping horse, their nimble cushioned feet find unfailing purchase among sharp rock slabs--sinewy bodies and fragile-looking legs pumping effortlessly.

Vanishing beyond the ridge, they reappear several minutes later, still screaming and chasing at full tilt. Down the valley they shoot, sod and mud flying as they circle a dark mountain tarn, then return in a flash to where they started. None the worse for wear after their four- or five-mile chase, they engage in mock combat, rearing up, entwining their necks, biting each other's legs, and generally trying to knock and topple each other to the ground.

To sustain this kind of stamina, vicuñas are exquisitely adapted to the rarefied mountain air of their high-altitude stomping grounds. They have high red-blood-cell counts to transport oxygen efficiently to their muscles and organs--14 million cells per cubic millimeter of blood, versus 5 million for a normal human, or twice that of a man fully acclimatized to altitude. Their three-chambered stomachs are capable of processing the roughest of forage, and their feet, designed as a sort of cross between hoof and paw, are leather-padded and flexible, ideal for all terrain. Their extraordinarily fine wool--which wards off the cold--is more than twice as fine as most sheep's wool, much lighter even than cashmere.

The wool is at the heart of a relationship with people that goes back to the ancient Incas. Legend has it that the vicuña is the incarnation of a disdainful young damsel who, when courted by an old and ugly king, refused to acquiesce unless he could provide her with a coat of pure gold. The vicuña was therefore considered sacred, and the death penalty was imposed on anyone who killed it. From then on, once every four years or so, the great Inca ruler would call upon thousands of his subjects for a huge wildlife drive in which the vicuñas were carefully shorn and released unharmed, their fleeces woven into jewel-studded garments for the exclusive use of royalty.

After the Spanish conquest, greedy colonialists began plundering the Inca's realm. In the centuries that followed, the vicuña's wool was so sought after (it even served as thermal wear for Britain's Royal Air Force pilots in World War II) that the species plunged toward annihilation, a tide that was finally reversed 35 years ago after the population in Peru fell to an all-time low of 6,000 (vicuñas are also found in much smaller numbers in Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina).

Today in Peru they are up to more than 140,000. The turnabout came after conservationists hatched a bold plan in 1967. The idea was to adapt age-old Inca traditions and superimpose them on current social needs and on the marketplace. "For conservation to succeed in this poor land, it must accrue in people's wallets," said Antonio Brack, a natural resource management expert who headed the recovery plan at the time. "Any other approach is pure romanticism."

Back then, about 1,000 vicuñas remained on the private land holdings of the Andean community of Lucanas. The centerpiece of the plan was to turn this area, covering about 16,000 acres, into Peru's first national reserve, to be known as Pampa Galeras. By removing domestic animals, such as cattle and sheep, whose trampling and overgrazing caused serious erosion to the land, the better-adapted vicuñas could thrive (with cushioned step and prehensile lips, vicuñas neither pug nor tear at the delicate tundra-like mountain vegetation the way hoofed domestic livestock do). In return, community members were told, local people could reap far greater profits from sustainable sale of wool.

The scheme took off. Help poured in from around the world, with expertise and funds coming from sources as diverse as the World Wildlife Fund, IUCN--The World Conservation Union, the German and Belgian governments and Britain's Prince Philip. Peru strengthened its national protection laws, and the vicuña was placed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which rendered all international commerce of the species and its parts illegal.

For the first time, the animals were afforded armed protection, with the tacit approval of the native people of the region. Vicuña numbers began to climb rapidly. The protection plan was so successful that conservationists were able to ship excess animals around the country to reestablish extirpated herds.

But with more and more experts, planners and managers involved, strife also erupted. An entrenched battle exploded between conservationists and planners over whether to cull surplus animals for meat and hides, in addition to shearing them. The bitter feud nearly cost both vicuñas and conservationists their futures.

An even more drastic setback came when human warfare broke out in Peru's mountain heartland. With Shining Path guerrillas active in the region, authorities disbanded the program for several years. Calm finally returned, and vicuña numbers resumed their climb.

By 1993, the vicuña population had soared to well over 100,000, and some impoverished local people started to question why those proffered riches had never come. That year, an organization called the National Vicuña Society (SNV) was legally formed to represent the interests of some 780 poor communities, dotting the windswept high plateaus along Peru's rugged Andean chain.

The next step was the first-ever modern vicuña roundup, or chaccu. Organized to coincide with "Inti Raymi," the Inca Festival of the Sun celebrated throughout the Peruvian highlands every 24th of June, it drew more than 2,000 participants from some 60 communities across the Andes. The president of Peru also attended.

Says Alejandro Cuellar, president of SNV, "Our goals are clear--to protect, preserve and manage vicuña stocks for their rational use by the Andean people, while fostering associated community industries." These are simple objectives, but complex to put into practice.

They have been successful--to a point. "The rescue of the vicuña from imminent extinction is a rare triumph in wildlife conservation," confirms Brack. But much remains ahead. "With this success some very hard questions in wildlife management are looming, like overgrazing and a potential genetic tragedy in the making," he says.

Brack is referring to miles upon miles of eight-foot-high wire mesh fencing that increasingly crisscross vicuña habitat. For years the National Corporation for South American Camelids (CONACS), the government department in charge of guiding vicuña management, has advocated the use of enormous corrals to facilitate control, ownership and capture of the animals.

The Indian communities like the fence-building concept because they feel it helps them protect the animals from predators and poachers. It also helps them to stake their claims against those of their neighbors. ("Some neighboring communities have come to blows, even inflicting serious casualties, over the ownership of free-ranging vicuñas," says Cuellar.) And it ensures more efficient vicuña capture when the time comes to shear them.

Despite the enthusiasm they generate, corrals represent an enormous financial burden and labor investment. The initial outlay for the fencing materials is covered by CONACS, but this is extended to a community as credit, which it must eventually repay in vicuña wool. "We need these fences to protect and increase our herds," says Gregorio Rojas Suarez who works unpaid with a small band of men to erect new government-sponsored fencing on the windswept col in Apurimac, another vicuña-rich region. "The proceeds from the wool will be invested into community improvements, but first we must clear more than 10,000 U.S. dollars in debts."


Photo: © TUI DE ROY

ON ROUNDUP DAY, a human wall of thousands encircles the vicuña herd at Pampa Galeras National Reserve. The yearly event revives ancient Inca traditions. Trapped in a net enclosure, the animals are picked up one at a time, weighed and shorn.

Jorge Taipe, a vicuña committee representative from a different community, echoes the sentiment. "We only have about 450 vicuñas, and we try to pay a guard to protect them from hunters and stray dogs," he says, "but we have no money." After years of toil, neither man's community has turned a profit.

Similar concerns emerge time and again back in the capital, Lima, where some 150 regional representatives from distant parts of the Peruvian Andes have gathered at their own personal expense to attend the biannual SNV assembly. The sobering reality is that more than 30 years into the program the vast majority of the vicuña-holding communities are still waiting to see some viable returns.

Why, if the vicuña's wool can generate hundreds of dollars in raw form or many thousands of dollars once woven into exquisite fabrics, they ask, have profits remained so elusive? Are there simply too many forces to reconcile, too many conflicting opinions and too many layers of administration for the cash flow to reach the native people efficiently?

One problem stems from the method by which the wool is marketed. In 1987, Peruvian vicuñas were officially downgraded from Appendix I to Appendix II on the CITES list, a change that according to the rules of the treaty enables the Peruvians to sell their wool internationally. However, they can do so only on condition that the wool comes from live shearing. To guard against inadvertently opening a black market, they signed an exclusive contract with a single buyer, the International Vicuña Consortium with headquarters in Italy, whose label guarantees authenticity.

But this monopoly has caused prices for the raw wool to stagnate at a fixed $140 per pound (representing about two vicuña fleeces) even though a single shawl weighing just a few ounces carries a price tag of $800 in the shop window. Demand has also been limited because the United States, the largest potential buyer on the world market for luxury goods, has yet to lift the vicuña from its own endangered species list--which means that products made of vicuña wool cannot be imported into the United States.

At the Lima meeting, the intense, weather-beaten faces of stocky Andean men light up as they passionately take the floor, one after another, on behalf of their communities' concerns. Delegates from the bleak mountains where per capita income is measured in a few dollars and cents, they remain united in their fervor to protect the vicuñas for their people's benefit.

Zenon Wharton, newly appointed SNV manager, presents the assembled members with a prototype for an exciting new product: a locally created, paper-thin, deliciously soft vicuña felt hat made from overly short fleeces unusable for weaving. His plan, to launch a new line of SNV labels to return the profits directly to the communities, brings a wave of optimism and hope.

Wharton also wants to clamp down on poaching, another serious problem for the vicuñas and their caretakers. "Last year a terrible shoot-out left one community with two dead and one critically injured," he says. All six poachers were shot, the only justice available, everyone agrees, as government enforcement has lagged since vicuñas became community responsibility.

And there are indications that the large corrals may be unnecessary, or even counterproductive. It is unlikely, for instance, that the animals--which are territorial except in adolescence--would wander far if left to their own devices. Worse, some confined herds show horrific predisposition to mange, a disease rarely affecting free-ranging animals. And poachers have been known to use the fences to corner their quarry.

Jorge Vargas, president of the small Peruvian conservation group Conatura, gently warns the SNV of a research project that found vicuña reproduction to be considerably lower inside corrals than in free herds. Clearly, the biological dangers from fencing could mean a breakdown of social structures, and in time, the reduction of genetic flow by impeding the access of marauding males to new breeding opportunities. It also raises some disturbing questions about how truly wild this wild animal would remain. The vicuña was domesticated once already thousands of years ago, but its descendant, the shaggy alpaca (a widespread Andean livestock), no longer bears the fine wool of its ancestors.

Back on the frigid, windswept plateau of Pampa Galeras National Reserve, June 24--the day of the chaccu--dawns like any other. Smaller roundups take place throughout the vicuña's range all through the six-month-long dry season, but this is the largest and most symbolic, with thousands of people coming from across the Andes to take part. Here, deep-rooted Inca traditions, modern pageantry and enlightened wildlife management mix.

As hard shadows shrink during a blazing tropical noon, sun-worshipping dancers and musicians lead the procession. Arranged in small groups representing many delegations from distant communities, hundreds of men and women soon strike out across the landscape to form a sinuous human line snaking over hill and vale. The chaccu begins.

At first the vicuñas, which have descended to the valley floor to graze, pay them little attention. But as the cordon draws tighter, the animals begin to panic. Family groups throng together raising tall clouds of dust as they stampede into the distance. Shouting and waving hats, jackets and colorful ribbons, the people in the human wall gradually press forward until the terrified animals are inexorably driven into a long, narrow, fishnet-lined funnel.

Eyes wide and nostrils flared, the vicuñas mill round and round their mesh pen. As the afternoon fades, the shearing begins. By sunrise tomorrow the vicuñas will be back on the range, apparently none the worse for wear but for the loss of some eight ounces of luxurious wool each. They will rearrange themselves in their family groups--wild, almost--as they have for eons.

Tui De Roy, a roving editor of this magazine, has been following the vicuña's recovery since her first visit to Peru in 1976. Last year, she and photographer Mark Jones returned three more times to cover the story.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates