[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 March, 2005, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Microchips to guard Peruvian alpacas
By Hannah Hennessy
BBC News, Nunoa, Peru

High in the Andes mountains, the air is thin, the climate is harsh and the land is barren.

Scraping a living in this part of Peru is difficult at the best of times. For thousands of communities, the sole means of survival is raising alpacas for their valuable wool.

Alpacero Juan Francisco
At 14,000 feet (4,270m) few other animals will prosper
But that survival is threatened by the trafficking of thousands of the best animals across the border to neighbouring Bolivia or Chile every year.

From there, they are sent to countries as far afield as Australia and the United States, where they are sold for their wool or as pets and can fetch thousands and thousands of dollars.

For many poor Peruvian farmers, it's a simple choice: sell an alpaca with high quality wool at home for a couple of hundred dollars if they are lucky or take it across the border, where it could fetch twice that.

Gene pool

So many alpacas with high quality wool are slipping across the border that the genetic pool is being watered down and the wool produced in Peru is becoming less valuable.

Authorities and alpaca experts say the most valuable animals have to stay in Peru and they fear that if nothing is done to prevent this, the world's largest alpaca industry could collapse.

Now they have come up with a modern answer for a world where time often seems to stand still.

The farmers, some of whom wear traditional bright embroidered clothes, often live in mud-brick houses with straw roofs. Children in car-tyre sandals huddle in doorways protecting themselves from the stinging wind and bright sun.

Alpacas at an exhibition
Alpacas with the highest quality wool are the most prized
The roads here are barely passable even in the dry season.

Into this environment, Peruvian authorities have brought up-to-the-minute technology - microchips, which they are inserting into the ears of the finest alpacas to help keep track of their whereabouts.

"The main problem is contraband and that is directly affecting the producers. This is why we need to put microchips in these animals and this should allow us to control the exit of these animals at the border, and identify those that are registered and not allowed to leave Peru," said Fabiola Munoz, the general secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture.

In the past, farmers have taken their animals to special commercial zones at the border, where the trade of alpacas has remained unchecked. Now, these areas will be fitted with the micro-chip scanners which can read the microchips.

Authorities know this won't provide an immediate end to the problem. The borders remain porous and the price of the micro-chips and the scanners is high.

The Ministry of Agriculture says authorities are working with farmers to convince them of the long-term benefits of keeping their higher quality animals.

Ancient habits

This is particularly important in the region of Puno, in southern Peru, which has 1.6 million alpacas, more than anywhere else in the country. The indigenous farmers who live here, at around 14,000 feet (4,270 metres) above sea level, are some of Peru's poorest.

They speak Quechua and not the Spanish of the government and have been farming alpacas since the time of the Incas, who gave them their language.

Jose Luis Apaza is head of production at Rural Allianza, the largest alpaca rearing company in Peru.

"At heights like this, very little else prospers. You can't really raise sheep or cows, but we have been raising alpacas since the time of the Incas. This is the only animal that can provide us with a source of income."

Companies like Rural Allianza can look to the future, because they have enough income for the present. But for individual farmers who live a hand-to-mouth existence, the reality is very different.

Juan Francisco calls out in Quechua to his 60 or so animals as he hustles them through the brush, underneath a searing sun. He looks about 70, but is probably only about 50. His features have been wizened by the harsh climate and a life that earns him and his family about $80 a month.

He doesn't speak Spanish and doesn't seem interested in my attempts to ask him about genetically improved animals.

It's difficult to see how the government in far away Lima will be able to convince people like him of the benefits of the micro-chips. He belongs to a world of ancient customs where modern technology is regarded with suspicion.

Alpaca farming 'on the increase'
22 Mar 04 |  Cornwall
Australian alpacas watch flocks by night
30 Jul 02 |  Asia-Pacific


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific