The vicuna is a wild (and graceful) relative of the llama, populating the higher altitude regions of South America, particularly the Andes mountains, and is coveted for its fine, silky wool. They are believed to be the wild ancestors of the now domesticated alpacas, which are also revered for their soft furry coats. The vicuna’s wool is extremely prized, primarily for three reasons: firstly, they produce extremely small amounts of fine wool; secondly, the animal can only be shorn every three years and must be caught from the wild; and finally, the silky texture of this wool cannot be found anywhere else in the world. For this reason, the vicuna appears on Peru’s national coat of arms!

Chaccu and Vicuna Shearing in the Peruvian Andes

This centuries old tradition of vicuna shearing lives on in the remotest regions of the Peruvian Andes, reports AFP. In the village of Totoroma, 30 miles (50 kms) to the southwest of the ‘highest navigable lake in the world’, Lake Titicaca , the villagers gather for a weekly event once a year, where the vicuna is gathered, herded and sheared. This process is locally known as the ‘ chaccu’ or the round up, where the beautiful, South American camelid beast with its golden hued fur is shorn off its skin. At 12.5 microns diameter, the wool fibre is light, soft, and extremely fine.

A group of vicuña stopped near the highway between Arequipa and Puno, Peru. Elevation at this point was around 3600 meters (12,000 ft). (Marshallhenrie, CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The local indigenous people, called comuneros, trudge up the mountains nearby and round up anywhere between 400 and 500 vicunas, and then round them up in pens with 3 meter (9.8 feet) high fences – an important part of the process, as the vicuna is highly agile and difficult to enclose. “It’s an ancestral activity that has been going on since time immemorial and now we’re helping out as a public state administration,” says vet Jaime Figueroa from the village.

Every year, around 10 tons of vicuna wool are gathered in the Peruvian Andean region, supporting almost 300 families. The comuneros are also required to hold the vicuna down, while someone from the local administration, who is an expert, carries a portable machine powered shearer. The shorn wool is collected and placed inside individual plastic bags, after which the animal is released – they generally escape and run far up the mountain, only ready to be shorn again after 3 years. Each vicuna produces roughly only 150-180 grams of wool according to Erick Lleque Quisoe, an official in the regional Puno government, compared to the alpaca which produces 3 kilograms of wool!

Spiritual Relation With the Incas and Accompanying Festivities

In Inca times only the royalty were allowed to wear vicuna clothing. According to Inca legend, the vicuna was such a highly protected animal because it was thought to be the reincarnation of a beautiful maiden, who rejected the advances of an old and ugly king. The king then presented this woman with a coat of pure, silky gold as a token of his appreciation. Therefore it was prohibited for the people to kill vicuna or wear its fur, a privilege reserved for royalty.

Things took a turn for the worse after the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. The conquistadores were ruthless in their exploitation of all that they saw as exotic, and the vicunas were a huge target of this loot and plunder. By 1964, the numbers had plummeted to a worrying 6,000 animals. Due to extensive conservation efforts, both domestic and trans-national, the vicuna numbers today are at a decent 200,000 plus.

Every year, the festivities of the chaccu include offerings that include vicuna wool, made to the  Pachamama ( Mother Earth ) and to the Apus (Mountain Spirits) to ensure fertile crops and animals for the coming year. This is accompanied by a three-day festival that includes the haunting melody of the local  huayno music, dancers performing in colorful native clothing, and the consumption of  traditional Peruvian foods  like choclo con queso  (Peruvian large-kernel corn and soft cheese) and  rocoto relleno  (stuffed peppers).

Top image: Vicuna near the Colca Canyon, Peru. Source: alessandro / Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey



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