The vast plains of the Altiplano in southern Bolivia are a seemingly lifeless expanse.
With sparse vegetation, desert sands and dry salt flats, it’s difficult to imagine how any creature could survive in an ecosystem like this.
Yet in the midst of this landscape, the vicuña — the undomesticated, fluffy cousin of the alpaca, and the source of the finest and most expensive animal fiber on the planet — is not only surviving, it is thriving.
This wasn’t always the case. In the time of the Incas, who worshipped the pony-sized creature and permitted only royalty to wear its wool, about 3 million vicuñas roamed the plains. By the 1960s, vicuñas were hunted to near extinction — killed for their wool instead of simply sheared — with only 6,000 remaining throughout the world.
Today, their population has soared to more than 350,000.
So what caused this meteoric rebound? And why on Earth are luxury fashion houses paying so much money for vicuña wool, once known as the “silk of the new world”?
In 2017, Conservation International videographer John Martin visited the area near the famous Uyuni salt flats — which he described as “surreal, as if painted by Salvador Dalí” — to answer those questions and more.
In a new short film that Martin shot and produced, he tells the centuries-old history of the vicuñas and a small community in the southern Andes who depend on them, shear them — and, ultimately, protect them.
It all starts, he said, with the esquila, the annual shearing of the vicuñas. The wool is combed and processed by women in the community, and then sold to textile manufacturers or fashion companies for a price more than 10 times that of cashmere and more than 100 times that of wool.
For the past two years, Conservation International has helped communities in the southern Bolivian Andes to hold their own esquilas in a safe and sustainable way. The profits from vicuña wool help support many families’ incomes, while the vicuñas’ protected status helps prevent them from poaching.
The result? “The vicuñas give the community something, and they give the vicuñas respect and protection in return.”
In the municipality of Colcha K, where some of the largest vicuña herds are found, the local community recently performed their first esquila.
“Everyone took part in it, from elders to women to small children. Even the nearby army base came to offer support because they wanted to make sure it was a success,” Martin noted. “You could feel the team spirit and respect within the community.”
As the esquila began, community members walked in a line waving colorful ribbons, distracting the skittish vicuñas enough to safely corral them into a large enclosure. Before shearing the animals, the community’s shaman — the medicine man and spiritual adviser — performed a ritual out of respect for nature.
The goal of this ceremony, explained Martin, was to show reverence for sacred indigenous ways and to honor the connection with Mother Earth and with nature. “Before you take something from the Earth, you have to ask permission first,” he said.
A single vicuña produces only about 0.5 kilograms (1.1 pounds) of wool, and by the end of the esquila, 55 vicuñas were sheared and safely released back into the wild. An item of clothing made of 100-percent vicuña fiber can fetch thousands — even tens of thousands — of dollars at a luxury retailer.
Near Colcha K, 57 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line, relying on harvesting quinoa and mining salt to support their livelihoods. Now, the vicuñas are helping to change that.
“The earnings from sales like this are transformative for Bolivian communities,” said Eduardo Forno, Conservation International Bolivia’s executive director. “The communities normally distribute earnings equally by family or even use them to improve schools and support health centers.”
By protecting the animals, conserving their habitat and learning how to shear them safely and process their wool, local men and women have a valuable — and sustainable — new source of income. And the vicuña population can continue to survive, and to grow.
“This story needed to be told,” said Martin, “to help people understand how these communities and these animals are not only living together, but thriving through conservation. This is a win-win for people and nature.”
John Martin is the director of production at Conservation International. Eduardo Forno is Conservation International Bolivia's executive director. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International.
Cover image: A group of vicuñas, Bolivia. (© John Martin/Conservation International)