De­mand for lux­ury leads to slaugh­ter

Vi­cu­nas are be­ing killed for pelts, en­dan­ger­ing the an­i­mals and Chileans who just shear them

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Chris Kraul Kraul is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

ARICA, Chile— Vi­cu­nas, the wild An­dean rel­a­tives of camels, are be­ing hunted mer­ci­lessly by poach­ers as the price of the an­i­mals’ lux­u­ri­antly soft hair, cov­eted by Euro­pean and Asian ap­parel mak­ers for coats, scarves and shawls, goes through the roof.

Po­lice last month found 150 car­casses of skinned vi­cu­nas in the high al­ti­tude Peru­vian vil­lage of Espite, pro­vid­ing grisly ev­i­dence of the men­ace to the South Amer­i­can moun­tain mam­mals, which also are re­lated to lla­mas and al­pacas.

The killing of the an­i­mals was a blow to the 70 in­dige­nous fam­i­lies in Espite who de­rive their liveli­hoods from sus­tain­able man­age­ment of the crea­tures. By cor­ralling and shear­ing vi­cu­nas as they mi­grate from wa­ter­ing spots to higher el­e­va­tion sleep­ing grounds, na­tive An­dean fam­i­lies in Peru, Chile, Bo­livia and Ar­gentina have kept a cen­turies-old tra­di­tion alive.

But with the black mar­ket price of vi­cuna wool ap­proach­ing $1,000 per kilo, an amount re­quir­ing the wool of about five adult an­i­mals, those tra­di­tions of hus­bandry are un­der fire. Gangs that Chilean gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials say are based in Bo­livia are go­ing for a quicker buck by roam­ing over lightly po­liced moun­tain­ous ar­eas in Peru and Chile to shoot and then skin the an­i­mals.

Af­ter the skins are hus­tled across the bor­der to Bo­livia, wool is col­lected and shipped to ap­parel man­u­fac­tur­ers in China and Europe, where the fiber is pro­cessed and then wo­ven into high priced cloth­ing. Much of the fiber is shipped out of Arica, Chile’s north­ern­most port, where a bi-na­tional pact shields Bo­li­vian goods from in­spec­tion, of­fi­cials say.

Vi­cuna gar­ments have long been fa­vored by roy­alty, Hol­ly­wood stars and the su­per-rich. Full length coats re­cently have been priced as high as $20,000, with men’s suits made by Ital­ian de­sign­ers go­ing for more than $40,000.

Why so ex­pen­sive? The only nat­u­ral fiber softer than vi­cuna is silk, said Car­los Nas­sar, chief of the Arica dis­trict of CONAF, Chile’s forestry pro­tec­tion agency.

The prof­its have in­cited poach­ers to kill, ac­cord­ing to Her­nan Tor­res, for­merly a Chilean en­vi­ron­ment min­istry of­fi­cial and nowa pri­vate re­searcher and con­sul­tant. In Jan­uary, two Chilean po­lice of­fi­cers were shot to death not far from this north­ern port city, ap­par­ently by poach­ers whom they had de­tained at a road­block.

“The sit­u­a­tion has got­ten much worse. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials in the An­des sim­ply have been over­whelmed by the mafias who have the vi­cuna killed and skinned, and who then sell the fiber to China and Europe,” Tor­res said.

The risk to the an­i­mals and to law en­force­ment of­fi­cials has prompted the global Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to put vi­cu­nas on the top of their list of en­dan­gered an­i­mals. The wildlife pro­tec­tion agency Traf­fic also con­sid­ers them en­dan­gered.

The slay­ings of the two Chilean of­fi­cers in Jan­uary were not iso­lated vi­o­lence. Two men were ar­rested this month in the north­ern Ar­gen­tine city of Cata­marca af­ter shoot­ing at po­lice who were about to stop their truck loaded with 75 pounds of vi­cun a fleeces. Chilean po­lice near Arica were also in­volved in a gun­fight with poach­ers in May 2014 af­ter seiz­ing 70 vi­cuna hides.

The killings of an­i­mals and po­lice of­fi­cers have made le­git­i­mate cul­ti­va­tion of vi­cu­nas by in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties all the more dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous, said Glo­ria Cas­tro, a univer­sity pro­fes­sor in Arica who also heads a 15-fam­ily co­op­er­a­tive of Ay­mara in­dige­nous herders who man­age vi­cu­nas in the vil­lage of Putre, 75 miles east of Arica.

Cas­tro was re­luc­tant to com­ment on who the poach­ers might be, say­ing, “We don’t know be­cause they gov­ern­ment hasn’t caught them.”

But Cas­tro, an Ay­mara whose fam­ily has herded vi­cuna for three gen­er­a­tions dis­closed that mem­bers of her co­op­er­a­tive prob­a­bly know who gang mem­bers are and where they come from but are afraid to say be­cause of their iso­la­tion, the in­fre­quent po­lice pres­ence and threats fromthe mafias.

“We do know the poach­ers use in­frared binoc­u­lars to hunt at night with high­pow­ered ri­fles. But who they are, no [mem­bers] will say be­cause they are threat­ened and told if you say any­thing, some­thing will hap­pen to you,” said Cas­tro, who is an elec­tron­ics pro­fes­sor at Univer­sity of Tara­paca. She de­clined to have her photo taken for this ar­ti­cle be­cause of the risk of be­ing iden­ti­fied by poach­ers.

De­spite the in­creas­ingly high prices for vi­cuna wool, Cas­tro said, le­git­i­mate shear­ing of the an­i­mals is be­com­ing less prof­itable. That’s be­cause of the high cost of hir­ing, trans­port­ing and feed­ing the 50 to 60 peo­ple needed to help herd the an­i­mals into fun­nel-shaped cor­rals where they can be shorn.

“Manyof the fam­i­lieswho used to cul­ti­vate vi­cu­nas left the moun­tains and went down to the cities,” Cas­tro said. The co­op­er­a­tive re­ceived gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance to help it get formed in 2006. “Now we are on our own” and the co­op­er­a­tive has lost mem­bers, she said.

The an­i­mals typ­i­cally are shorn only once ev­ery two years be­cause their hair grows slowly. Each shear­ing yields about 200 grams of fiber, mean­ing it takes five adult vi­cu­nas to pro­duce 1 kilo of wool, said Nas­sar of CONAF in Arica. A fam­ily or co­op­er­a­tive’s typ­i­cal herd is about 200 vi­cu­nas yield­ing about 20 ki­los of wool a year, mean­ing that at cur­rent prices, a fam­ily or group can gross $20,000.

The gov­ern­ments of Chile and Peru main­tain of­fi­cial counts of the an­i­mals, which are con­sid­ered prop­erty of the state, with in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties given the ex­clu­sive right to hus­band them. Ac­cord­ing to the 2013 cen­sus, Chile’s herd to­taled only 13,000 and Bo­livia’s 100,000.

Indy Ro­driguez, a bi­ol­o­gist at the Le­gends Zo­o­log­i­cal Park in Lima, Peru, said the most re­cent cen­sus of Peru­vian vi­cu­nas, in 2012, counted 209,000 an­i­mals.

Ef­forts to boost the size of herds in Chile have failed be­cause the sparse veg­e­ta­tion at the moun­tain el­e­va­tions of 14,000 feet or more, where the an­i­mals graze, doesn’t sup­port them, Cas­tro said. Un­like lla­mas and al­pacas, the an­i­mals don’t take to do­mes­ti­ca­tion, she said.

Tor­res said stricter con­trols must be en­forced in global trade of vi­cuna fiber if the tra­di­tion is to sur­vive.

“The prob­lem is the de­mand for vi­cuna prod­ucts is so high and peo­ple are will­ing to pay a lot of money for them,” he said. “Also, Bo­li­vian laws are weak and don’t pun­ish peo­ple for illegal buy­ing. That’s why it’s be­come a cen­ter for the il­licit trade.”

Her­nan Tor­res For The Times

VI­CU­NAS in the Chilean An­des. The high black-mar­ket price for their wool is giv­ing rise to gangs of poach­ers. The only nat­u­ral fiber softer than vi­cuna is silk.

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