Vicuñas. The Golden Fleece of the Andes. In Inca times only the nobility were allowed to wear clothing spun from their precious wool. Back then, if you killed the vicuña, you died for it. But once the empire fell vicuñas were hunted to the edge of extinction. They live high up in the unforgiving Andes where villagers live in isolation for weeks at a time. “She says she didn’t used to live here. She used to live in the countryside.” Something’s happening today. Hundreds are gathering from miles away to take part in an event that dates back to Inca times. A vicuña round up. The men leave first. It’s their job to drive the
animals down from the distant hills. At 15,000 feet it’s hard to breathe let alone chase down these agile beasts. Once there would have been 10,000 villagers in a human chain stretching across the horizon. All we can do is hope for the best. 1,600 vicuñas. The largest catch the village has ever seen. They tell me that the gods get angry when we interfere with their beloved beasts. “Ow!” [Thunder] “Ouch. Unbelievable! Those poor vicuñas!” You can’t sheer a wet vicuña. We had to let them dry out overnight and returned to discover that the real work has only just begun. “This is going to be a long day.” They don’t bite, thank goodness. But they kick like mules and jump like deer. The trick, apparently, is to get hold of both ends. “Don’t let go of the tail!” “Thank you!” I’ve decided to stick with the little guys not that it makes much difference. The moment of truth. The wool is gathered and shipped to Italy where it gets made into $10,000 coats. Like Inca times still, a luxury only for the rich. But there’s one thing that’s worth more
than their priceless fleece to see them back where they belong.