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
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Peruvians Shear Vicunas in
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
"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.