In recent decades, one of South America’s greatest conservation successes has been the comeback of the wild vicuña (pictured above), the rare camelid that’s a close relative of the equally wild guanaco and the domestic llama and alpaca. Wild, however, does not mean fierce and, more recently according to the Los Angeles Times, poachers have begun to take a serious toll on these gentle and approachable creatures.
When I first traveled to Chile, in the late 1970s, there were only about 1,000 vicuñas in Parque Nacional Lauca (pictured above), which abuts the Bolivian border in the high Andes, east of the city of Arica. That number has risen as high as 17,000, but the Times article cites a figure of only 13,000. When I lived there for nearly a year in the early 1980s, while doing research for my M.A. thesis in Geography at Berkeley, sighting solitary vicuñas or troops of them was always a thrill as I traveled the high plains, whether riding in a bus, hiking, or riding a mule.
Still, at more 4,000 meters (14,000 feet) above sea level, this is a thinly populated area where a handful of rangers cannot monitor the herds along a porous border – when I lived there, Aymará Indian families regularly crossed to and back from Bolivia with no regard for immigration formalities.
Since the vicuña’s fine wool sells for roughly US$1,000 per kilo – on the black market – it’s become difficult to control ruthless poachers who shoot to kill and then skin the animals before selling the hides and wool to smugglers who ship them out of the country. Park rangers are unarmed and, earlier this year, poachers killed two Carabineros police officers who had stopped them at a roadblock near Arica.
The Times story cites my friend Hernán Torres, a conservation consultant whom I met there in the early 1980s, to the effect that “Law enforcement officials in the Andes have simply been overwhelmed by the mafias who have the vicuña killed and skinned, and who then sell the fiber to China and Europe.”
The vicuñas are not the only victims. Chile and other countries now have programs that allow highland communities to manage the herds sustainably, trapping and shearing them at regular intervals. That’s become more difficult, less profitable, and potentially risky for those who continue to do so.