The high-altitude quest to save alpacas
Rufino Quico remembers when his pastures turned green each November as spring rains arrived on the high Andean plain where his herd of 380 alpacas grazes.
Quico was born in Lagunillas and lives in the same adobe house as his forebears. His family has tended alpacas for generations, as far back as they can remember. Now 57, he is not sure his children will be able to follow in his footsteps—or even if his beloved hamlet, which stands at 14,000 feet above sea level and is home to 56 families of alpaca herders, will survive the coming decades as climate change remakes the landscape.
“Our pastures should have turned green, but look at them. They are yellow and of little use to our herd,” he said, as he gazed across the vast expanse of spring grasses withering under intense sun and crystal blue skies in the Puno region of southeastern Peru.
Climate change in the Andes has rewritten weather patterns in ways that have affected alpacas at every stage of life—from increasing mortality of newborns to shrinking grasslands where herds feed. Abrupt changes in precipitation, as well as ice melt as glaciers retreat, are wreaking havoc on both alpacas and the communities that raise them.
The Peruvian highlands are not lush and historic records show that precipitation has never been plentiful. But it was enough to sustain alpacas. Alpacas give birth only in the first three months of the year, during the rainy season. Now, that once-reliable season, which moderates temperatures, has become erratic. Alpacas are very sensitive to cold, and brusque swings in temperatures, including cold snaps that have killed thousands of alpacas, are making herds vulnerable to illness and contributing to a higher death rate among newborn animals.