"Let’s see who count fastest the number of cars on the road," he challenges us. From our vantage point, the Nazca-Puquio highway stretches out like black ribbon, cutting across the plains. A winding procession of cars and vans packed with foreign tourists and reporters, four-wheel-drive jeeps with local passengers, buses and an ambulance carrying oxygen tanks putters along quietly, heeding the orders of the reserve not to scare away the nervous vicuñas which are being herded into a fenced-off channel, which lies just 60 meters from the highway.
This is why we are huddled down on this reddish, rocky hill, glancing at our watches as we shiver in the biting highland wind at over 4,300 meters. No one is permitted to come within 500 meters of the nylon mesh in this part of the reserve, which sprawls across 6,500 hectares. The slightest distraction could spoil the chaccu. The channel leads into a corridor which opens out into the corral. One of the local villagers lies hidden in an underground lair, waiting for the last of the vicuñas to enter the corral. Before the herd can try to escape, the man will leap from his hiding place to slam the corral gate shut.
But that is still to come. Our eyes strain to make out signs of life on the stony plain studded with spiky ichu grass. We can see the cars slowly rolling along the road, in parallel with the herders. But where are the vicuñas?
"There are 80 cars," mutters a smug Herrera Hidalgo. His talent for mathematics won him an international bet in 1999. The Ecuadorian ambassador, invited to the previous chaccu, laid down a challenge to Jorge Herrera that must have stung his sense of patriotism. "I wager a case of Jack Daniels that you can’t gather together more than 500 vicuñas," His Excellency challenged. The head of Conacs, the guardian of Pampa Galeras and credited with having boosted Peru’s vicuña population from 5,000 to 130,000 over the past 33 years, the equivalent of half the vicuña population in all of South America, stifled a chuckle.
The diplomat’s calculation was way off. Hours later, when the count had topped 2,500 vicuñas ready for shearing, the ambassador had to smile and congratulate Herrera Hidalgo. "It was one of the best chaccus that anyone could remember." he said. The case of whiskey arrived at the triumphant Herrera’s house a few days later.
Today’s chaccu will be a smaller affair altogether. It is not a good idea to herd too many vicuña in the presence of so many visitors. The herders have been working since dawn, but they have only covered the area near the corral. They hope to bring in around 1,000 vicuña.
"I don’t envy them," said Rubén Pérez Albela, another official linked to the reserve, perched up on the bluffs, near several tour operators, who, tired by the long wait, bask in the sun, snooze or gaze out over the horizon, as if staring at infinity. "They have to walk for miles over plains until the vicuña enter the corral."
It is a tough day’s work. Sometimes at dawn in winter, temperatures can plunge below -17°C (0°F). A hundred villagers form a long line, helped by long ropes with dangling colored ribbons, to cover as wide an area as possible.
"There they are," shouts Rubén. It is hard to make out the figures, but it is true. After fleeing for 10 km, flocks of vicuña begin to appear on the plain below us, like hundreds of red ants. It is as if the stones on the plain had begun to leap West, headed for the corral. We can hear the shepherds’ faint shouts drifting downwind: "chaccu, chaccu".
At 2:25 in the afternoon, the first flocks of vicuña stop to sniff the air and start to enter the corral, but soon skip out again. This is a key moment in the operation. The herders have to bunch together firmly when the galloping herds form a charge and try to break out. If they break through the line, all the others would escape, too. But thankfully, it is not to happen this time.
The animals stop just a yard short of the human wall, and, bemused and befuddled, gallop off in search of a weak point in the human circle. The villagers know their job, and half an hour later, when the colored ribbons hanging from their ropes are visible to our eyes, they succeed in getting the vicuña to form a solid group, seeking refuge in the corral. They have been trapped.
The men of Conacs spread the word, and the waiting crowds on he hillside (visitors from neighboring communities, soft drinks vendors and tourists) run towards the plain and gather around the corral. Out on the road, people descend from cars and trucks and also come running. The vicuña mill around nervously, while the running visitors stumble over the Martian landscape, all rocks and tufts of ichu grass. Our hearts pound in a bid to pump the scarce oxygen in thin air into our bodies.
The vicuña, doe-like creatures with liquid eyes and upright ears that twirl in 360 degree arcs, crane their long necks to stare at us and dart skittishly around a central stone platform, but find little in the way of consolation to ease their panic. The platform is then mounted by a comic-looking Inca character dressed for the part, who stumbles over a Quechua prayer during a ceremony where some of the vicuña are put through a gruesome ritual.
Before shearing each vicuña of 200 grams of its precious fiber, the men clip the tips of the ears of a pair of animals, before mixing the blood with fermented maize chicha to smear on the faces of some of the visitors.
The gesture is said to guarantee fertility and prosperity. Possibly in a bid to lend some color to this Seventh International Vicuña Festival, the organizers have lapsed on some points of this Andean rodeo.
The corrals begin to fill up with unauthorized visitors, some of whom attempt to take pictures of themselves with the herd, sparking stampedes that buffet and hurt some of the young. Near us lies a baby vicuña, its large black eyes dull with pain. Another wanders around, lost.
Even so, this method of extracting the wool is better than that practiced for decades by poachers, which pushed the vicugna vicugna species to the brink of extinction before the reserve was set up with guardposts in 1967. The shearing is suspended until tomorrow.
At the on-site museum, it is easy to see why neighboring communities in addition to Lucanas are protecting the species as a way of climbing out of poverty.
When we ask the price of a vicuña wool sweater, one laughing matron responds: "With a discount, $500".
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