As we walked down the road, groups of vicuñas fed on the grass and turned to look at us with curiosity. Their currently tranquil state was achieved after years of effort: first, the poaching of the area’s vicuñas had to be stopped.

The animals were hunted illegally because their fur could be sold for up to $1,000 per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds). In addition to poaching, violence from terrorism in the area also threatened the vicuñas. Because of these challenges, Sosaya appreciates that those helping the vicuñas have since been fortunate. Today, there are 200,000 vicuñas living in Peru’s Andean region.

Pampa Galeras, the survivor

“Next time, we’re coming back for you, buddy,” is a phrase Sosaya will never forget hearing when he was only 12 years old. It was how terrorists from the guerilla group known as the “Shining Path” warned him that his time had come. Lucanas, like other districts in Ayacucho, was hit hard during the armed conflict.

According to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 227 people were killed in the war between 1980 and 1994. In his house in Pampahuasi, in Lucanas, Sosaya recounted that his family lived in fear because other people had already been murdered in 1983, when Sosaya himself was threatened. Sadly, two of Sosaya’s family members have been killed in the conflict: his mother and his three-year-old brother.

Until 1994, those living in Lucanas had to stay in constant motion in order to stay alive. That was the only way to avoid being trapped by the Shining Path or by the Peruvian armed forces. Every time Sosaya travels to Lucanas, he remembers the makeshift bed that he made with his father in a cave in the mountains there. The rest of the time, he lives at Pampa Galeras, which is about an hour away from his house.

Pampa Galeras is also a survivor of the war. In 1988, the main base and the control checkpoints of the protected area —the third oldest in Peru— were shut down and the employees were evacuated. However, by that year, the vicuña’s lifespan and gestation period had been established. The information obtained during that period of research was later used to repopulate other areas with vicuñas.

Six years later, when the team of park rangers was able to return, only half of the vicuñas remained in the reserve. “We don’t have the exact number [of vicuñas] that were unharmed because the censuses didn’t return until the late 1990s,” says Reino Joyo. With 41 years at the reserve, he has more experience than most of the country’s park rangers, and was also an eyewitness to the violence in the reserve.

“It was sad leaving and sad coming back,” says Joyo. The reserve’s employees had to start over from almost zero. That was when the real connection between the district of Lucanas and Pampa Galeras began. The connection grew stronger after the signing of an agreement with the Peruvian government, which authorized the rural community to play a role in the conservation of the vicuña and to use their fur.

With the work of the community’s farmers and the reserve’s park rangers, the current vicuña population was reached. There are also an additional 10,000 vicuñas living in the reserve’s buffer zone. The vicuña fur industry has even become a profitable activity for the residents of Lucanas to take part in.

Teamwork

On May 23, 2017, Pampa Galeras National Reserve celebrated its 50-year anniversary. Corina Rojas, president of the farming community of Lucanas, also turned 50 years old. She says that these are the “designs of destiny.”

As she sat at her desk in her office, Rojas called Pampa Galeras a blessing. She was born in Lucanas when it was common to own a vicuña as a pet. “Some people even had a leoncito (small Andean puma) in their yards; we took care of them as if they were dogs,” says Rojas. Preventing their pets from being indiscriminately captured was difficult.

Rojas smiled as she described all she has accomplished this year in her position. She has managed to increase the salaries of the employees dedicated to shearing the vicuñas’ fur to $410.

Rojas also resumed business with Loro Piana, an exclusive Italian fabric company that is now the community’s main buyer of vicuña fur. She continued smiling as she described all the work she did to liberate 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of vicuña fur that were seized two years ago due to a paperwork issue.

“It wasn’t because of a lack of certification,” she clarified. The farming community of Lucanas is one of the few places in Peru that has a certificate of origin. Since 2012, there has also been an agreement between Lucanas and Peru’s National Forestry and Wildlife Agency that allows residents to sell vicuña fur under the brand name “Vicuña Perú.” This was a requirement imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) for the countries that sell raw vicuña fur, such as Bolivia and Argentina.

Víctor Cotrina, an engineer and the manager of the community’s vicuña project, says that this agreement will be valid until 2021. “That is important because market prices began to fall due to the commercialization of illegally-sourced vicuña fur,” says Cotrina. This way, the government can guarantee the traceability and legality of the fur.

There are about 210 people in the community who divide the work to obtain the anxiously-awaited fur. The work begins with a group of 20 to 30 people who participate in “the chaco,” an ancestral custom that ends with the capture and shearing of the vicuñas. This is done between May and November, but the main date is June 24, which is known as “Farmer’s Day” in Peru.

“Here, we can capture up to 500 vicuñas, but after setting aside the ones who are sick, pregnant, or very small, we can only shear the fur off of about 150 of them,” says Reino Joyo. Although the community is in charge of the shearing, the park rangers have lots of experience in it as well. “We were the ones who trained the community members,” agreed Sosaya.

After the chaco, the fur needs to be cleaned. This task is predominantly performed by the women. Magaly, who has been doing this work for 16 years, believes that women are born with fingertips that are already well-adapted to the task, which requires lots of finesse and precision.

At a table underneath bright white lights and using a dish of grease, the women can clean up to one kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of fur per month, which they can sell for about $302. Because of her seniority, Magaly has permission to clean the fur at her farm while taking care of her cattle. She believes that the price is not fair. “If we could make hats or make clothes with this fur, we would make more income,” she says.

Cotrina, the engineer, says that the increase in the amount of vicuña fur produced in Peru and elsewhere in Latin America has caused a decrease in its price. One kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of fur used to be valued at $500, but now it is only sold for about $390. Additionally, there was a setback when those in the vicuña fur industry lost their agreement with Loro Piana, the Italian company that had guaranteed them a stable price until 2023 and had also been their main buyer. “With this new leadership, we have resumed business, but we are planning to have a national clothing industry,” says Cotrina.

In the international market, Loro Piana can sell a bag of vicuña fur for $15,213. Rojas, the president of the farming community of Lucanas, plans to lay the foundations to buy machinery that would allow the community to produce clothing with the fur. “People from the Ministry of Production arrived last year to train us, but the plan was paralyzed with the political changes,” says Rojas. In her opinion, the use of resources from Pampa Galeras should go beyond vicuña fur.

The future of Lucanas and Pampa Galeras

Pampa Galeras National Reserve’s potential in terms of landscape and tourism is based on the abundance of vicuñas, guanacos (another camelid similar to the vicuña), condors, forests filled with trees of the genus Polylepis, and prehistoric and pre-Incan remains, such as cave paintings. A common theme of those cave paintings is, of course, the vicuña.

In light of this, the farming community of Lucanas has planned to construct lodging accommodations in front of Pampa Galeras, and the community members plan to be in charge of the electricity and communications for the reserve. Even today, after 50 years, they are still not in charge of these services.

In the past, inhabitants of the area created holes for the vicuñas to fall into so that they could shear their fur and eat their meat. The remains of several of these holes still exist in the reserve. Photo by Vanessa Romo for Mongabay Latam.
In the past, inhabitants of the area created holes for the vicuñas to fall into so that they could shear their fur and eat their meat. The remains of several of these holes still exist in the reserve. Photo by Vanessa Romo for Mongabay Latam.

Flores, the manager of the reserve, told Mongabay Latam that although there is a large group of people interested in seeing Galeras, the infrastructure capable of receiving large groups of people doesn’t exist at the moment. “We register 3,600 visitors per year now because we have few rooms in the reserve’s headquarters,” said Flores. He added that entrance is currently free because a concrete plan for visits has not yet been developed.

Meanwhile, there are other urgent issues to consider. After the eradication of poachers within the reserve, the main cause of death for vicuñas is crossing the Interoceanic Highway in search of water and pastures. “We have placed signs signaling that speed needs to be reduced in areas where the vicuñas travel, but we still have at least three deaths per month,” says Mily Cárdenas, the reserve’s youngest ranger. As part of the community’s agreement, Rojas says that they have been adding new sources of natural water within the protected area to try to prevent the vicuñas from crossing the highway.

With this type of action, along with a recent update in their vicuña management plan, the community has earned the attention of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP). The community will be the first to receive the title “Conservation Allies” and earn the “green seal.” Flores, the reserve’s manager, believes that this recognition will allow them to increase the price of their fur by at least $100 per kilogram, which means that they could earn another $500 in international markets.

“We want Pampa Galeras to be the pilot program of this green seal — a certification that guarantees that a product is obtained under high environmental standards,” says Flores. The goal is to transfer this seal to all the rest of the resources that are obtained from Peruvian protected areas.

Two vicuñas have been staying inside the reserve’s headquarters for the last few months, where they are being protected by park rangers. Their work involves ensuring that the reserve’s vicuñas are always part of a herd. If a young vicuña is found alone, the park rangers take care of it until it is slightly older and can join a new herd.

“We have to give milk to Nenita,” Sosaya reminds Cárdenas. Like all the tasks at the reserve, they take turns feeding the young vicuña they rescued. The office’s chalkboard has a feeding schedule for Nenita, who is fed about four times per day. Cárdenas prepares the feeding bottle and walks toward the young vicuña.

She is named Nenita because Nena is the name of another vicuña who came to the reserve before she did, who will soon return to life in the wild. Nenita drinks every last drop of milk, and Cárdenas pets her for a few seconds.

“We have to be careful not to domesticate her,” she says. For everyone involved —park rangers and community members— it’s clear that she should no longer be in captivity. The vicuña, the Peruvian national animal displayed proudly on the nation’s flag, has always deserved to be free.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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