Vicuna Poaching on the Rise in Peruvian Andes

Reese Erlich reports on the rise in vicuna poaching in the high plains of the Peruvian Andes. The animal's hair is used to make some of the finest and most expensive wool garments in the world, and the animal is closely protected by the Peruvian government.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In Peru, there's an animal in the high plains of the Andes called the vicuna. It's sort of like a llama but even softer. It produces some of the finest wool in the world. A vicuna coat can cost $10,000 or more. Vicunas were almost hunted into extinction until the Peruvian government cracked down on poaching nearly 10 years ago, but the poaching is back. Independent producer Reese Erlich reports.

REESE ERLICH reporting:

Here in an open field at 12,000 feet in Peru's high plains, it took a half-hour walk to spot a herd of wild vicuna.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

ERLICH: The deerlike animals have elongated necks and white, furry chests, but these close relatives of the alpaca and llama quickly scampered off, wary of human contact. We head back to a village where residents are living from these elusive animals.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: It's market day here in Tupala, a small village some five miles southeast of Lima. Once a year, residents here herd the vicunas into corrals and shave their wool. Until the mid-1990s, poachers would shoot the vicunas rather than go through the laborious herding process. Adam Cruz(ph), a supervisor with CONACS, the Peruvian government agency protecting vicunas, says the government crackdown on poaching with a new law.

Mr. ADAM CRUZ (CONACS): (Through Translator) Before 1996, there was indiscriminate killing of vicunas, but after that, community security guards were formed. Villages formed their own self-defense organizations. This all helped reduce the amount of poaching.

ERLICH: The law mandates that vicunas can only be sheared by local communities. Indigenous amaras here sell the fiber for $200 a pound, a huge amount of money for these impoverished villagers, but those prices also attract poachers. Wilder Trejo, president of CONACS, says poaching has steadily increased since 2003, the result of worsening poverty. The latest figures indicate 600 vicunas were killed out of a total population of 161,000.

Mr. WILDER TREJO (President, CONACS): (Through Translator) Some villages aren't able to round up enough vicuna. They can't earn enough money. For this reason, some turn to poaching.

ERLICH: And the poachers are better armed than 10 years ago, says Eulario Mayta, president of a local vicuna villagers association.

Mr. EULARIO MAYTA: (Through Translator) Years ago, the poachers used telescopic sights. The poachers are local people. They're not foreigners. We suspect some people, but it's hard to catch them.

ERLICH: The poachers kill the vicuna, strip off the skin, leave the carcasses and sell the fiber on the black market in Peru or in nearby Bolivia. CONACS' President Trejo says the upper echelons of the smugglers are very sophisticated.

Mr. TREJO: (Through Translator) It's similar to the organization of drug traffickers. Every dead vicuna is worth almost a hundred dollars. This Mafia is very organized. They move everything to the border with Bolivia.

(Soundbite of rain; muffled conversations in foreign language)

ERLICH: In Tupala Village, a sudden rain storm drives people temporarily indoors. CONACS supervisor Cruz says that the justice system doesn't really deter poachers. He says while the law calls for jail sentences of up to 10 years, poachers rarely serve any time.

Mr. CRUZ: (Through Translator) In reality, like with the rest of the government, the law is not effective in the poorest communities. When someone is caught or someone is charged, they are released from the police stations either through bribes or outside influence.

ERLICH: Vicuna association President Mayta says local villages are in the best position to stop poaching because they have a community interest in maintaining the vicuna herds.

Mr. MAYTA: (Through Translator) In order to stop the poaching, we need better arms for our security committees. We need binoculars in order to identify the poachers. We need good vehicles to go after them.

ERLICH: Mayta says a combination of better local security and community pressure should significantly reduce poaching. That's how the herds were repopulated in the 1990s, and he's confident Peru can do it again. For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

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