The Hunt for the Vicuña: Can This Andean Creature Be a Cash Cow?

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Mike Theiss / Getty Images

Vicuñas stand in a row at a lagoon in Bolivia

Jhonn Gonzales etches the attack plan into the dirt. His lookout gives a nod from behind binoculars, and the troop fans out silently across the parched plains. Then, commotion as the target appears: one dozen sprinting vicuñas — with 30 indigenous Aymara pursuers on their heels. Layered ankle-length skirts billow and native Aymara shouts fill the air as the villagers race after the pack, forcing them toward large nets. Cheers erupt when the last of the animals — a sleeker cousin of the llama — enters the corral. “It’s always a battle,” says Gonzales, a zoological engineer and adviser to Bolivia’s Association for the Commercialization of Vicuña Fiber or ACOFIV. “Today we won,” he says, out of breath.

The curious event reminiscent of a campesino special-ops mission has an unlikely end result: providing the world with one of its most expensive natural fibers. Hundreds of thousands of vicuñas roam the Andean highlands, and villagers who share the oxygen-starved plateau are allowed to periodically round them up, quickly shaving the elusive camelids and then setting them free. The animal’s extraordinarily soft undercoat makes its way to Europe, where it’s turned into the ultimate holiday gift for your 1% friends: a $1,200 scarf or $65,000 poncho.

For years, sale of the unprocessed fur has slightly boosted the standard of living in impoverished Bolivian villages. But these communities are frustrated that intermediaries and first-world clothing manufacturers keep the bulk of the profit. “Our goal now is to industrialize,” says Titiri resident Benedicto Guarachi, before turning his attention to Gonzales’ ground etchings.

Industrialization is a common call throughout Latin America, as the region has perpetually sold off its natural resources to foreigners who profit greatly by turning the raw materials into a usable form. Bolivia’s first indigenous President Evo Morales vaulted to the presidency in 2006 with promises to end this trend. “The most important thing for us is industrialization, incorporating value-added into our natural-resource programs,” Morales repeated earlier this year at his annual weekend-long Cabinet strategy meeting.

But progress has been slow, and it turns out that adding value is sometimes harder than it sounds, even when the process is as simple as weaving fiber into a scarf.

Appreciation for the vicuña’s coat dates back to the Incas, who were said to have been the original capture-and-shavers. When modern Europe caught on to the vicuña’s luxuriousness last century, poaching brought the species to the brink of extinction. (The vicuña is virtually impossible to domesticate because of its unique mating habits and bullish character.) In order to save the population, the governments of Argentina, Peru, Chile and Bolivia designed a modern version of the Incan practice. When highlanders realized they could profit annually by keeping the animals alive, the species rebounded from less than 10,000 in 1969 to over 200,000 today. “They knew they had a potential gold mine,” says ACOFIV adviser Daniel Maydana.

The roundup’s downsides are that it is painstaking and uncertain. For months prior to a capture, communities monitor nearby vicuñas’ migration and grazing habits to determine the best location and time of day to maximize capture. With the right calculations and enough manpower, up to 100 vicuñas can be rounded up at a time. But the slightest mistake — too much noise or gaps in the human line that pushes the animal toward the nets — means failure.

“This is not easy,” said a frustrated Vincente Ramirez, 40, as he bounced in the back of a pickup truck at the base of Bolivia’s Sajama Mountain last month. Ramirez and 50 others spent the entire day preparing, but their targeted pack had been spooked early on, and the villagers returned empty-handed.

Nor are the gains particularly high. Ten shorn vicuñas yield 2 kg of fur, and Bolivia exports an average of 2,300 kg per year, or approximately 25% of the world supply, according to the Bolivian Institute of External Commerce. Peru dominates the export market, providing from 60% to 70% of world supply. Argentina and Chile contribute a few hundred kilograms annually. ACOFIV negotiates a bulk rate for the entire lot — recently averaging $430 per kilogram, but which at times can spike as high as $800 a kilogram — and profits are distributed among participating communities, which divide it among participating villagers. Most highlanders receive $5 to $10 for each day worked, which normally maxes out at 20.

“We live with very little money,” says Titiri resident Ramigio Apaza, explaining that since his arid homeland allows for little more than potato crops and llama and sheep herding, the minimal vicuña salary is welcome.

As would be getting more bang for their buck. “Selling a product with value added rather than as a raw material is always the best option,” says Gary Rodriguez, president of Bolivia’s Institute of External Commerce. “It’s good that [vicuña-producing] communities want to industrialize because that is what will improve their income and quality of life.”

And they have been promised as much. President Morales says he’ll end Bolivia’s history as a poster child for what’s known as the “resource curse.” For centuries, the mountains of South America’s poorest nation have been gutted for their minerals. Bolivia’s soil has been drained of natural gas; its forests stripped of mahogany. The profits from these production lines have filled foreigners’ pockets, while Bolivia was left with entrenched poverty and environmental destruction. Yet six years into Morales’ term, Bolivia still has no new mineral smelters, and the manufacturing sector remains weak.

The problem, however, is not only unfulfilled promises but also false hope, some say. “You can’t just snap your fingers and industrialize,” says Sebastian Caballero, production and quality-control manager for Walisuma, a product line of the La Paz–based Nuevo Norte Foundation.

He should know: for the past two years, Nuevo Norte tried. With 4 kg of fur it went through the production line, from dehairing — separating the fine undercoat from the animal’s course outer hair — to spooling, to weaving.

“We don’t recommend Bolivia make final vicuña products,” Caballero concludes, “at least not right now.” Vicuña, he says, is too small a product line for the investment required to do it well and profitably. “You don’t build a factory that would only be open for a few weeks every year,” he says, explaining that the Italian companies who dominate vicuña-goods production sustain themselves by combining this with the manufacture of other fine-fiber products.

Jorge Laura, the director of Bolivia’s national Vicuña program, reluctantly agrees: “We can’t make an industry with only 1,500 kilos of fur.” He says while industrialization is a laudable long-term goal, his program focuses on strengthening the capture and shave programs through skills training and securing financing for equipment. “Bolivia only shaves approximately 5% of its entire vicuña population,” he says, “so there is still so much to do.”

But, says Caballero, just because Bolivia is far from mass-producing fancy scarves doesn’t mean it can’t advance. “We should be focusing on dehairing,” he says, explaining that this first step along the value-added line doesn’t require machinery, is easily taught and can bring in more than triple the price per kilo of unprocessed wool.

It’s not what most highlanders have in mind: “We want to make the final products,” says Delfina Apaza, rubbing her hands after hours of manual sheering. But it might do the trick — once she and the others realize that even this small step could bring them more money than their current dreams of riches. After all, the gap between this dusty world and the 5th Avenue store with a $6,000 scarf is wide. Apaza says she’s not sure how much a vicuña accessory might cost in the U.S., but she wagers a guess: “I don’t know. Maybe $80?”