In Peruvian Andes, vicuñas, small, elegant relatives of the llamas, were seriously endangered for many decades due to their golden fleece, the rares and most expensive in the world. The government rescued an Inca tradition to sustainably gather and sell its fleece and give locals better income options.
Now, the vicuña is the country's national animal and it's no longer at risk of extinction.
REBIRTH OF A NATION: CHACCU
At the height of the Inca Empire, roughly two million vicunas roamed the Andes Altiplano, the desolate, wind-swept plateau that stretches from southern Peru to northern Argentina.
"I was born and raised in this village. My life is completely connected to the alpacas and the vicuñas.
The alpacas provide me food, fur and happiness. The vicuñas offer me money. All I can do in return is take good care of them and do my best for them to be healthy. Baby alpacas are usually born at dawn and I need to be there to help the mother if necessary. If the baby is born during winter, I need to be extra careful because they could die due to the cold weather, but you know... I love what I do."
Margarita's husband Genaro spends days working in nearby villages while she works at home, taking care of their animals. He says that his wife works hard and has to help the alpacas to get born.
During the 'warmest' period of the year, the community gathers for the most important event of the year: the Chaccu - an Inca name for the sheering of the vicuñas
Nowadays, a few chaccus happen in rural communities throughout Peru. Some are open to tourists with costumes, music, and dancing. This one, though, was shot in a region that is not touristic (maybe because of its extreme altitude)
In small communities, locals will set up two lines of wooden posts to create a bottleneck and fence in the vicunas. In Picotani, all the adults will participate. First, they will go on their motorbikes to corral the vicuñas. Once the animals are gathered, all the other people (women and men) will start walking in lines, shouting to scare the animals and pushing them towards a bottleneck. Rangers monitor the chaccu to make sure the animals are not stressed or harmed in any way.
A day before the chaccu, locals will ask permission from nature to perform the Chaccu. In Picotani, usually, only the shaman (healer) will go to the region's apu (Quechua for 'mountain spirit') -the Incas used to consider the mountains as sacred places and each mountain would have its own spirit.
Once the animals are gathered, everyone (women and men) will start moving in lines, shouting to scare the animals and push them towards a bottleneck. They can be on motorbikes or on foot.
Back in the Inca times, the indiscriminate killing of vicuña was forbidden. Chaccus were held annually. The vicuña, once counted, were separated; the old and infirm slaughtered for their pelts and meat. The females, their cria, and the best male specimens were shorn and released. The finished cloth was treated like gold and stored in imperial warehouses.
When Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532 and discovered the fleece, they began hunting the animals with guns. By the mid-20th Century, vicuña overcoats were considered the height of luxury in the US and Europe. By that time, the vicuna population had plummeted to fewer than 10,000. They were on the path to extinction. It’s believed that by the ’60s, there were no more than 7000 animals left in Peru.
The vicuñas are all tagged and monitored. The chaccu is the only time in the year they have to check on the vicuñas to see if they are healthy.
Peru's government decided to create a plan to save the vicuña. In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) declared the vicuna' most endangered' and banned all international commerce of vicuna products.
But poachers, driven by the high prices on the black market – around $1,000 a kilo – were undeterred. Enforcement of laws was nearly impossible: the vicuna habitat was far too vast and remote to patrol. The population continued to disappear.
Part of the plan was 'resurrecting' the old Inca-style chaccu round-up and declaring rural villagers the custodians of the vicunas that lived in their region and granting them the rights to shear sell the fiber.
The sustainable live-shearing generated income for some of the country's poorest and most isolated communities, encouraging them to become warriors of the vicuñas, protecting them from illegal hunting. Their absence of hair becomes a shield against the poachers because a shorn Vicuna has no value to the poacher.
The population started to rebound, and, in 1994, the ban on international trade was lifted. In 2008, the vicuna was downgraded to 'least concern on the list of threatened species, becoming one of the few species in the world that has recovered from being endangered
To understand how the vicuñas it's considered one of the world's finest natural fibers in the world of textiles, the finer the fiber, the softer and more valuable it is. Vicuñas fleece is made up of individual fibers measuring just 12 to 14 microns in diameter, it's (by contrast, cashmere ranges from 14 to 19 micron.
The village of Picotani is fenced, and there's a blockage by the 'entrance,' so either no vicuñas will escape as a poacher or unauthorized people won't come in. There is no internet or phone signal. Electricity comes from solar panels.
If an animal leaves the protected area and goes to the main road, the village's leader will mobilize the community to capture it back.
Locals now have an income from vicuñas, but obviously is not a ‘fair’ one. They earn around $150 per animal annually. The full amount of money will be divided among villagers. It helps when you think about a place where it is impossible to grow trees or most vegetables due to the altitude.
Elders believe this is an advantage for the new generation. Rosa says she is happy there is a school in the village, so her grandson Jon can attend classes.
When you are a child living in a small village in the Andes, chances are you're not going to school because there are no schools nearby. But Jon does go to a school 20 minutes away by bike. He tells his little brother everything the teacher told him during class when he comes back.
Just like Jon, dozens of other children expect a brighter future thanks to the rebirth of the vicuñas: the warm gold of the Incas.