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On a hill located more than 4,600 meters above sea level in San Pedro de Pilas, in the department of Lima, a group of slender vicuñas looks out and watches. “Get on the ground, everyone get on the ground!” shouts a community member, while the intense puna sun begins to dry skin in the middle of this dazzling Andean landscape.
The chaccu or chaku, “capture” in Quechua, has begun and, at this crucial moment, it is recommended that, if the animals appear outside the human chain that is enclosing them, they must lie on the ground and stay still. In this way, they will pass over it, jumping agilely, and will get into the fence from which they will have difficulty leaving. If, on the other hand, these characteristic mammals of the Andean highlands want to escape from the encirclement, you have to get up and scare them inwards by waving some colored strips.
But this time it doesn’t happen like that. The male who leads these vicuñas (generally the groups are made up of one male, three females and two juveniles) has shrewdly turned in the opposite direction, along with his herd, to get lost in the middle of a cloud of dust. The community members lament, but for a short time. “We have to remain vigilant,” says one of them. In this ancient practice, which according to veterinarian Enrique Michaud of the National Forestry and Wildlife Service (Serfor) dates back about 8,000 years, we must not let our guard down.
Residents of San Pedro de Pilas prepare the banderillas to carry out the fencing and shearing of vicuñas.Sebastián CastañedaHerd of vicuñas in the corral to be sheared.Sebastián CastañedaResidents let the young vicuñas free. These are not sheared until their fur grows.Sebastián CastañedaThe fence set up by residents of San Pedro de Pilas. Sebastian Castaneda
The pre-Hispanic technique is quite effective. As it is literally impossible to catch up with the vicuñas by chasing them – these animals reach speeds of up to 45 kilometers per hour – what is done is to locate the herds at high altitudes (the animal lives at 3,500 to 4,800 meters) and organize a day determined, so that hundreds of people go out to form a human chain that surrounds the flocks until they enter a corral.
Men, women, the elderly and children come out. The operation in San Pedro de Pilas begins the night before. The former mayor Melquiades Quispe calls the residents with a loudspeaker so that at four in the morning they gather in the central square of the town and get on the trucks that will take them up. In the cold early morning, in fact, the locals, well clad in wool coats or jackets, climb into the vehicles, which will then ascend a steep dirt road, for two hours that pass between dim light, clouds and hills.
The pampa where the chaccu will be held, half rocky and with some unevenness, is at the foot of a rock called Maururo, which is considered an apu (sacred place in the Andean world), and over which two imposing Andean condors fly. Nearby is where, when the day begins to lighten, the vicuñas begin to appear—like fantastic animals breaking up the landscape.
Residents lie down on the ground so as not to scare away a vicuña so that it enters the banderilla fence.Sebastián Castañeda
According to Quispe, the first chaccu of Pilas took place in 2013. It happened after, for several years, he and other people had negotiated with the National Council of South American Camelids (CONACS), a State agency in charge of protecting these animals. , a technical file for the sustainable management of this wild animal, since the technique had fallen into disuse. Years ago, he remembers, “I came to see dozens of vicuña corpses scattered across the pampas while I was walking.” In the Republic, and until recent times, hunting was violent and excessive, not like in pre-Hispanic times, in which the use of the vicuña was controlled.
A providential animal
The recovery of the chaccus in Peru in recent years is a way to neutralize the poaching of the vicuña, whose precious fiber can cost up to 300 dollars per kilo. In the pre-Hispanic world, the animal was captured and sheared to make costumes for supreme authorities, such as the Inca. But during the Colony and the Republic, an all-out hunt was unleashed that dramatically impacted the species. It is estimated that by 1965 there were only about 3,500 vicuñas left in the country, when before there were hundreds of thousands. Currently, according to the ‘Vicuña Agreement’ of 2016 there were 200,000 vicuñas in Peru; Today there could be many more, as stated by engineer Gustavo Escobar, another specialist on the subject, who remembers that this is the country where there are the most vicuñas.
In 1969, the Pampa Galeras National Reserve was created, located in the department of Ayacucho (Central Sierra) to cushion the crisis, and it is there where, after several chaccu trials between the 70s and 80s, the first more organized one in 1992. From then on, the ancestral practice, an example “of wildlife management and conservation” according to Michaud, expanded. Currently, about 260 rituals are performed throughout the country.
“This is an improved trap,” adds the specialist. When the vicuñas are herded into a corral, after fencing them with a human chain, the older ones are sheared and then released. The youngest ones are released earlier, without shearing them, so that they continue to develop and can live up to about 20 years. They are not killed and with that the population is maintained and grows.
A vicuña being sheared in San Pedro de Pilas (Peru).Sebastián CastañedaCleaning and weighing the vicuña hair after shearingSebastián CastañedaResidents of San Pedro de Pilas clean the fur of the sheared vicuñas. Sebastian Castaneda
The Pilas chaccu has a peculiarity: unlike others, where the activity already has a tourist connotation, this one is more popular, arising from the efforts of the people themselves and in a town located about four hours by car from Lima. It also had the help of the Pilas city council, a municipality in Seville, in Spain, which in 2006 donated 23,000 euros to this Andean community to refine the recovery project for this practice.
The vicuña, in addition, has a somewhat unknown history. As Michaud points out, the first camelids that appeared in the Andes, perhaps millions of years ago, were the vicuña and the guanaco. The domestication promoted by pre-Hispanic man, about 8,000 years ago, caused the first to give rise to the alpaca, today also a highly valued fiber; while the second gave rise to the llama, perhaps the most emblematic animal of the Andean area.
Furthermore, the vicuña’s hooves are soft, they do not crush the earth and, therefore, they do not damage the puna ecosystem; They also do not tear up the Andean grass when eating, as cows or sheep do. Rather they chew it and cut it. These qualities mean that water resources are kept underground, because it is the vegetation cover that causes the aquifers to recharge and erosion does not occur. Thus, the chaccus, when recovered, have become an important form of wildlife management.
Fiber and life
“I’m here to support my community,” says Isaías Huacho, a burly 72-year-old man, after he skillfully fell to the ground and caused a vicuña to get into the fence. He endures the cold and altitude without problems and affirms that chaccu is beneficial for his people. As Quispe says, last year the money raised by the fiber was used to partially finance cultural activities at the Pilas school. It can also be used to help people without resources.
Two residents of San Pedro de Pilas carry a pair of young vicuñas.Sebastián Castañeda
This year, the ritual yields positive figures. It was possible to capture 262 vicuñas, of which 162 were sheared and will produce about 30 kilos of a very valuable fiber. Others, 140, both large and small, were released because they were not in shearing conditions. About 100 could not be caught. In the background, in the middle of the blinding Andean light, some of them can be seen running, moving gracefully in the middle of the pampas. Isabel Medina, a singer from Piña, releases a sweet song in the middle of the shearing: Vicuñita del Maururo, how pretty you are…
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