Posts Tagged ‘Vicuñas’

Contumaza, Peru

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

I am in Contumaza, a small agricultural town in the northern foothills of Peru in South America. The landscape shares similarities to the southern parts of California, particularly the San Bernardino mountains.   Beautiful flora and fauna, of which i am completely unfamiliar with. A whole family of what appears to be Cactus Wrens, stark dark brown a nd white in color and rather large in size, building a nest in a cedar tree. Skunks, perhaps striped skunk,  the same size as ours in the US.    Amazingly colored hummingbirds, bright green, and huge, the size of a North American Bluebird, (kind of scary).

Some kind of black and white hawk the size of a redtail but shaped a  bit differently. All black wings with white wing patches beneath toward the outside of the wings. White tail with a black bar. Hovering over the mountain landscape.    Rabbits, maybe jackrabbit, rats and mice.

Getting off the plane into this new land  I decided  i wanted to see what the mountain lions where like on this continent. I am not sure if there actually are any where i am here, its very open with lots of farmland, but turns out there is a local zoo, “Hermita”, with all these amazing animals either out in the open or behind structures that are very accessible. I usually feel pretty sad when i go to zoos so i try to avoid them, and this one was no exception, but it was so close and i was exploring. He just paced back and forth impatiently in his twenty by eight foot cage. It was quite fascinating however to be able to watch him move, walk, urinate, doing things i have always seen in track and sign but never actually live. Quite  revealing.  People, mothers with children, just walked by, obviously quite used to “La Puma”.

The Vicuña is a beautiful mountain mammal similar to the Llama, but more slender and agile. It flows over the landscape like a dolphin on the water, graceful and completely at one with the terrain underfoot. I meanwhile stumbled and slipped quite clumsily in comparison as i chased after it. They put me to shame in how fast they could move over the  mountainside. I also couldn’t breath very well as i was somwhere around ten thousand feet above sea level.

I had arrived during their annual Vicuña shearing festival, in which they capture these wild animals and steal the fur right off their backs in the middle of an alpine winter. They then sell it for a rather high price to folks in Europe and North America.  It was a community affair, in which hundreds of people gathered to capture, cook, shear, clean and spectate.

In the cold hours of dawn, while it was still dark,  we gathered under the yellow street lamps to wait for the bus. About sixty- plus men and women piled together in the back of the open, wooden bed of a small semitruck, and proceeded to drive up what i would hardly call a road, for the next two hours. Winding over rocky switchback after rocky switchback, we bumped up and down, side to side, like livestock in the freezing mountain air.

Upon arrival to the camp we were met with hot “Mote” soup, a traditional Peruvian corn soup with various animal parts in it. It was very welcomed after the bitter ride.  The men then proceeded to juice up on coca, a native plant that can give one energy and relieve altitude sickness, and is also what the recreational drug cocaine is made out of.  We split off into smaller bands and made our way across the wide valley where the animals were grazing, eventually forming a line with each person walking over the grass and rock about twenty to fifty feet apart.

The goal was to corral the animals through the valley towards a fence that had been set up specifically for this event. The fence was arranged to funnel  them tighter and tighter into an enclosed pen. I read that this was how ancient cultures in Northern America captured wild ungulates such as deer, in their case to eat them, so it was interesting to actually participate in it being done successfully.

I kind of feel like i am dreaming sometimes when i am here as i find myself in such bizarre situations. Everytime a pack of Vicuña would come toward the line we would scream and wave stuff about to frighten them the other way.  Lookout men would stand up on the highest elevations and shout out orders to us, ”  Advance!”, “Stop!”, “Duck!”. Sometimes we would crouch and hide in the grass to let a few run past us.

"Calypto" Eucalyptus leaf

They had what must have been close to a thousand feet of rope with multi-colored plastic flags tied to it (they use alot of  plastic here), which they all held together and marched across the landscape with to further condense the frightened animal population.  At this point i realized why they had all been downing so much coca that morning. They were all running up these steep slopes in the thin high altitude air, holding  this rope, while screaming at the animals, while picking the line up over rocks and other snags. This was some kind of  intense athletic training . I barely kept up.

Vicuña tracks in mud

I have not been impressed with the way folks treat animals here. I have seen way too much animal cruelty in the past two weeks than i care to mention. Voice hoarse, body sweating  and exhausted,  we finally got these animals into the pen, at which point they went into a frenzied panic. The men could have at this point respectfully apprehended and sheared these animals, but they didn’t. I wasn’t feeling the love.  They would put them in a headlock, pick them up by the tail,  strap them against the ground and then shave off what i assume they needed to survive the zero degree temperatures up there. Blood dripping from their mouths and legs after running full speed into these metal fences, the men laughed and cheered as these inspector people seemed to fail to notice that ther were actually living animals underneath the fur they scrutinized for quality. You could almost see the dollar signs floating above their  heads. I have pics of all this but perhaps i won’t post them.

I wondered what would be the appropriate thing to do in a situation such as this? Tear open the fence to let them free and have an entire Peruvian village murder me? I eventually just walked back up to the bus to wait for our departure.

Wish i could have gotten a pic of the sunset glowing red as it set over an endless horizon of silent, completely uninhabited mountains but the  batteries for my camera died.  As i lay in the back of the truck, packed on either side with human bodies like loaves in a bread shop, i stared up at the crystal clear skies with the milky way winding it’s way through and tried to forget the day and just revel in the  pure awe and joy of the moment .