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The Gran Chaccu

(Written in early '04)

This past November I made a trip to South America. It has been a while since I had the opportunity to head south during the long Montana winter, so when I was invited to make a presentation on embryo transfer at the 3rd International Congress on Camelids in Potosi, Bolivia, I jumped at the chance. This Congreso was scheduled for mid-October, but a few hours before I was to board a plane in Bozeman I received a call from one of the organizers saying the political situation in Bolivia was just too unstable, bordering on revolution, and the Congreso had been postponed indefinitely.

For about three weeks it seemed there would be no Congress on Camelids in Bolivia, but, finally, I received an e-mail notice that the event had been re-scheduled for November 19-22, 2003. The Bolivian president had been thrown out of office and a new administration had promised sweeping reforms within three months. Nobody seriously thought the new president would be able to deliver on these promises, but there was a period of calm, during which the Congreso would be held. The organizers wanted me to be the featured speaker (on embryo transfer) in the portion of the meeting devoted to Scientific Investigation.

About this same time, early November, I received an e-mail contact from a man named Dag Aanby, who headed a project called Alpa Vida in Peru. Aanby wanted my help in establishing an embryo transfer program there to improve the fiber quality in Peruvian alpacas. He said the wave of exportation of alpacas from Peru to the US, Australia and New Zealand a few years ago took away the cream of Peru's alpaca genetics, and that the average quality of alpaca fiber available for processing or export had taken a nosedive as a result.

Alpa Vida's Dag Aanby, a modern day Don Quixote.

Embryo transfer seemed a reasonable approach to solving this problem, as it enables a 10x increase in the babies from select females. It is relatively inexpensive in terms of money (around $20 per baby), but quite expensive in terms of time and work (about 20 hours per baby). I was interested. Maybe this was a way for the techniques we have developed over the past ten years to have a positive effect on the lives of the people of the Andean altiplano. Aanby offered to pay half my expenses for the trip to South America if I would come to Juliaca, the headquarters of Alpa Vida just a few kilometers from Lake Titicaca, before the Congreso in Bolivia. In passing he mentioned that he would be involved in the largest capture of vicuñas in modern history on the 9th of November and invited me to join him if I could get there in time. That did it. Sally arranged for me to fly out of Bozeman on the 6th, arriving in Juliaca on the 7th.

Aanby met me at the airport in Juliaca at about 3PM in the afternoon on Friday, the 7th of November. We went directly to the offices of Alpa Vida, where I had a couple of hours to re-pack my gear into a small bag before we headed up into the mountains. I was a little woozy from the long trip and from the elevation here, a mere 13,000 feet above the level of the sea.

We were supposed to leave for the high country by 5PM, but there were other people who wanted to convoy with us and they couldn't get organized to leave until about 7PM. It was already quite dark, and I was told that the trip would take at least five hours. This turned out to be five hours of jolting, bouncing, low-gear travel over roads that would be called jeep trails in the US. When we arrived at the place where we were to spend the night, an old alpaca breeding facility, there were no beds ready for our party of nine adventurers. Dag sounded the horn of the little Toyota truck a few times and eventually several men appeared out of the darkness. I gathered that there had been a missed communication at some point, but these folks would do their best to supply us with blankets. There would be no food or clean water, no sheets or pillows, but blankets would get us through the night. The temperature here was now well below freezing, and the elevation was nearly 15,000 feet.

All of the beds that had mattresses were in two rooms, so I bunked with two other men I had just met. They turned out to be the directors of two of the largest and most respected agricultural research stations in Peru. We all slept in our clothes to help us get through this cold night. I used my coat as a pillow. My head was pounding and my fingers and toes were tingling. These are symptoms of altitude sickness, but considering how high we were, I felt pretty lucky that it wasn't worse. I put the foam earplugs I was given on the flight into my ears and soon drifted off.

I was the last of our party to wake up. Dawn came about 6AM local time, but my internal clock was still on Bozeman time, two hours earlier. Everyone else in our party was up and gone on a tour of this old facility. I rolled out of bed and put my coat and shoes on, then grabbed my camera and went out into brilliant sunshine to absorb some heat and have a look around.

The once-majestic alpaca station at Cambria

I walked a short distance to get a photo of the once-majestic facility where we had stayed the night. Even just this slow walk of 200 yards or so was enough to make me dizzy and cause me to gasp for air. I picked my way back and found the other members of our party, including Dag Aanby's Peruvian wife, Sonia, and their three sons, eating a breakfast of bananas, bread and cheese. I had a little something to eat, but I was more interested in getting some of the tea that was being served. I hadn't had any water for more than twelve hours, and I definitely didn't want to drink water that had not been boiled.

Soon after breakfast we were on our way again, this time for only about forty minutes or so. We crossed a pass at the 16,000ft level and gradually made our way down into a broad valley, to the central point of the chaccu, or vicuña catch. This area was quite well organized, with big corrals, a meeting hall and shearing barns. Tall fences draped with cloth stretched out of sight over the hills in all directions. The main valley was divided into pie shaped pieces with all the points converging on the central catch facility. Hundreds of people from the surrounding area had gathered for the chaccu, and most had spent the night camping in tents around the buildings.

Dag and his family were greeted with obvious affection and respect by the people of this area. Alpa Vida has given many basic training and education courses for the people in the high country, and these courses and other self-help programs have made a difference in the lives of these people. They are more confident and interested in life than any other group of people I came across in Peru or Bolivia during my trip south. They were obviously well organized to take advantage of the renewable resource they have in the vicuñas.

The idea of a chaccu is to drive a group of vicuñas into a catch area where they can be sheared of their wool (the finest of all mammalian fibers) and released without harm. That's a tall order, because vicuña are on the endangered species list, only recently downlisted to "threatened" because their numbers continue to increase. Significant losses cannot be accepted as part of this process. I would learn that the people of the Picotani Comite were tuned in, acutely, to the catching of vicuñas without harm.

I understand that the Incan rulers organized chaccus to provide fiber for garments only they, the nobility, could wear. Maybe…OK, probably…some of those catches were of hundreds or even thousands of vicuña. There is no record. But, what I was to see in the next two days was historic, in that it went beyond anything that had happened in the past few hundred years.

About noon of this, my first full day in the Andes, a van rolled up to the little group of buildings and about a dozen gringo tourists climbed out. This was a tour group of US alpaca breeders accompanied by my old friend Dr. Julio Sumar. I soon learned that all the events scheduled for today were for the entertainment of these turistas. This was the Chaccu Turistico, a kind of dress rehearsal for the Gran Chaccu that would be held the next day.

Julio Sumar holds court at the gathering before the Chaccu Turistico.

Soon after these guests arrived, the vicuña catch began. Almost all of the local people began the long walk outward from the central catch area along one of the fence lines. I admired their ability to function in this thin air. They were going to catch the vicuñas from the smallest of the several wedges that converged at the center of the valley. The Aanbys and I stayed at the catch area, along with the gringo turistas. About half an hour after the last of the drovers had disappeared from sight over the rolling hills we began to see small groups of vicuña running along the hilltops in the distance. Fifteen minutes later the line of people appeared at the horizon and many small groups of vicuña could be seen racing here and there ahead of them. This is the most dangerous time of the chaccu, when small bands of animals make high-speed dashes at the line wherever it seems weakest. These forays were almost always turned back with lots of whooping and hollering by the people in the line. Occasionally a few animals would slip through a weak point, but it seemed that more than 95% were contained and eventually caught. As the group of vicuña became more concentrated, the animals seemed calmer and fewer attempted to escape. Toward the end of the chaccu the main body of the vicuñas were just walking along peacefully a few yards ahead of the line of people.

Nearing the end of the Chaccu Turistico.

At this point, the tourists began to pose for photos in front of the captured herd. The local people maintained a cordon around the animals, but there was a strange calmness that settled over the scene. The animals were moved across the main road between two lines of herdsmen, at the walk, just like a big group of llamas would be herded from one place to another. Once the animals were enclosed in a big corral, the tourists were invited to take their places in a semi-circle of plastic chairs facing a stage made of sod. This was the traditional ceremony that followed a chaccu, and one of the chairs was reserved for me.

The American alpaca breeders pose for a photo in front of the captured
vicuñas.  At the center is Jose Antonio Escalante Yana,
President of the Multi-Community Picotani Comite.

Two of the tourists were asked to participate in the ceremonial wedding of a male and female vicuña. After some speeches and some offerings of coca and wine to the earth and wind, the two vicuñas were nabbed at random from the adjacent corral and dragged up to the sod altar. The turistas were asked to sew colored yarn through the eartips of each animal. Then a good-sized piece was cut out of the outer edge of each ear, resulting in quite a lot of bleeding. The blood was collected in a small container and about half of it was mixed with red wine, which was then offered to and drunk by everyone in the half circle.

The chaccu was followed by a ceremonial marriage of two vicuñas.

Next a woman made the circuit dipping her fingers into the small container of blood and painting it onto each cheek of each guest. Right behind her was another woman with an apron-full of coca leaves, offering a handful to each guest. Finally, all the guests were asked to remove their hats and a third woman passed around sprinkling colored confetti on their bare heads. A little more ceremonial incantation followed and it was over.

We all went into the shearing shed for a symbolic first shearing of a vicuña. The men doing the shearing knew their stuff, and within 3-4 minutes the animal was ready to be released. I was standing near the small door where the vicuña was to be let go, and the handlers invited me to pose for a photo with this first-shorn vicuña of the year.

The first vicuña to be shorn is about to be released.

A hot dinner of alpaca ribs, corn and potatoes was served to all the participants, and the tourists climbed into their van and headed back to their luxury hotel in the lowlands (well, a few thousand feet lower, anyway). I was offered a bed for the night in the office of the Comite that organized the chaccu. They found two extra blankets for me, and for a second night running I slept in my clothes, this time with vicuña blood smeared on my cheeks and confetti in my hair. I was just barely maintaining, and I fervently hoped that I would be better adjusted to the thin air by the next morning.

Sunday, the day of the Gran Chaccu, dawned clear and calm. After a quick breakfast of bread, marmalade and café con leche, the Aanbys and I went off in search of a big herd of alpacas that Dag thought might contain some embryo donor candidates. We got back to the chaccu compound about noon and nobody was there. They had all gathered at the top of one of the nearby hills, about 500 vertical feet above the valley floor, for a pre-game ceremony. This involved speeches by several local and regional officials. I was growing impatient because a cold wind had begun to blow from the direction of a big black cloud mass on the horizon.

Dance of the Condor.

Eventually there was an elaborate dance depicting a condor attack on a baby vicuña (the villagers were successful in driving the condor away and saving the baby), and finally, everyone shared a huge pile of coca leaves and several bottles of red wine and pisco. Thus fortified, the people in attendance at this ceremony began organizing themselves into groups, each person with a number from 1 to 10, depending on where they were to be in the chaccu line. There were captains positioned at intervals of about every 50 people, and the drovers, who obviously knew the routine, paid careful attention to them.

Dag and I would participate on horseback, and it took a few minutes for us to get the tack adjusted for our longer legs and get mounted up. By then the line had moved out and we had to trot the horses to catch up. My horse was quite sluggish and unwilling at first, and I didn't want to push him too hard in this thin air, but he came to life as soon as we joined the chaccu line.

What kind of horse can function at 16,000ft above sea level?

The area that would be swept by this chaccu was much larger than the section used for the Chaccu Turistico the previous day. That drive had covered about 5,000 acres and resulted in the capture of about 700 vicuña. Very impressive, but it had been only a demo for the tourists (who were charged $20 each for the show) and all the captured vicuña had been released immediately after the ceremonial first shearing. Today's event would sweep an area of more than 20,000 acres. I was a little confused about how this would be done, as there didn't seem to be many more people in the line than there had been the day before (about 500 by my guess).

The line of people went clear over the mountain.

I had left my digital camera in the truck overnight and it was having problems. Probably the combination of a cold battery and frost forming inside had resulted in intermittent failure to focus or shoot when I pushed the button. I put the camera inside my coat and soon I was so caught up in the chaccu that I didn't have time for photos in any case. Dag stayed on the valley floor, where most of the animals would be, but I decided to follow along a central ridge where the line was stretched thin and my ability to move around faster than the people on foot might be a plus. The wind had picked up and now contained a few flakes of snow.

The people in my section of the line were all business, and I assumed this was true of all the participants in the drive. There was no conversation. Nobody lagged behind the line or failed to maintain an equal distance from those on either side of them. Most of the people involved were women, and many of them carried babies on their backs. At one point, high on the ridge above the valley floor, the nearest captain ordered a halt, and almost all the drovers immediately dropped to a squatting position and turned their backs to the wind. I was stuck on my little horse, with the bitterly cold wind whistling around and through me for a couple of minutes. I prayed that this windstorm would not turn into a blizzard, because the black cloud I had seen earlier was now upon us.

As it turned out, my choice of the ridgeline was fortunate for two reasons. As this section of the line began to be tested by small bands of vicuñas I was able to be of real help in plugging holes and strengthening the line at critical times. There were some very surreal moments, when a group of twenty or thirty vicuña would charge the line at full speed, turning aside only at the last moment when the people would wave their arms frantically, shake blankets and shout or clang makeshift noisemakers. Dag told me later that he could easily hear my Montana cowboy "HYYYAAHHH" above the wind where he was, half a mile away.

The other great thing about being on the ridge was that I had a clear view of the valley beyond, where most of the vicuña were collecting. The mountains that formed the boundary of the main valley were at least a thousand feet taller than the ridge where I was. To my amazement, another line of drovers, at least another 500 people, appeared along the topline of those mountains. I learned later that two other groups of 300 to 400 people began the drive from small communities on the other side of the mountains. Now hundreds of vicuña began to stream down the gullies and ravines of that mountainside. It looked for all the world like rivers of orange flowing down toward the valley floor. Sometimes the streams would converge or separate, but the flow now was clearly moving in one direction, toward the catch corrals.

The line in my area was being tested less frequently. Groups of 50 or 100 vicuña were walking along peacefully just ahead of the drovers. This calming effect of being in a larger group, the same thing we had noticed at the end of yesterday's chaccu, seemed to be crucial to the success of the drive. We ran out of ridge and began to make our way down to the valley floor through fantastic rock formations that would have been difficult terrain to defend if the animals were still testing the line. In all, from my view of more than a mile of the line, I saw less than ten vicuña get through during the whole drive.

The Gran Chaccu nears the corrals.

As we approached the corrals, the magnitude of the catch began to be apparent. This group looked like at least three times as many animals as we caught the previous day. In fact, the count would be over 2,300 vicuña captured without serious injury to a single animal. This was the largest capture of vicuña since the days of the Incas. The closer we came to the central catch facility, the denser the crowd of people became. Finally, with all the animals contained in only a few acres, the people were at least ten deep and shoulder-to-shoulder along the open side of the V. Everyone was clearly very tired and happy, and I for one was nearly frozen solid. Still, until the last of the animals was safely inside the stockade, nobody laughed or shouted or lost their focus on the vicuñas. With a big group of animals so densely packed together, there were several who got down and were stepped on by the others. This didn't seem to happen out in the middle of the herd, only along the edge next to the people. Whenever one of the animals went down a few people would move in quickly and quietly to help it up. No shouting, no jerky movements. It seemed that all the animals and all the people were generating alpha waves. It was as if the whole scene resonated to a cosmic Ommmmm sound.

The vicuñas accepted their capture calmly.

This was too big a herd to be moved through the gateway and into the corrals in one group, so an inner line of people at the apex of the pen separated 50 or so animals at a time and gently urged them through the gate. Then they went back for another gulp of animals and the process continued in silence until the last vicuña was safely inside and the gate was closed. Only then did the people begin to laugh and joke and tell their stories.

Two young ladies of the Picotani area pose for photos with the captured vicuñas.

2,300 Vicuñas in One Corral

Once again all the dignitaries from the several communities that participated in the chaccu were ushered into the ceremonial marriage of two vicuña. I was surprised to find that I was the guest of honor this time. I had to stuff coca leaves into the mouths of the two lucky newlyweds and I pierced their eartips with the colored yarn. I helped to collect their blood and was the first to drink it and be painted with it. More chewing of coca leaves. More confetti in my hair. The ceremony was cut short by a snowstorm and almost all the participants from the chaccu crowded into the main meeting hall for music and dancing.

I don't know how long this party continued, because Dag said our goodbyes and we climbed in his little Toyota truck for the long trip back to Juliaca. We left the celebration at about 5PM, planning on getting home by about 9PM for a light dinner and a hot shower before bed. We chose to go back by a more direct route. The road was more difficult in one section, but we were going downhill this time, and this route should save us at least an hour.

As it turned out, though, we were caught up in a juelga of students from the countryside demanding lower bus fares for their commute to the university in Puno. Roads were blocked with huge stones and piles of burning wood debris. Our vehicle was surrounded by masked men with clubs. Bridges were blocked or destroyed. By the time we left Picotani at 5PM our day was less than half finished, and there would be no dinner or hot shower. But that's another story…

Bridge over troubled waters...

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