UCHA UCHA, Bolivia – The roar of about 70 motorcycles shatters the quiet of the wind-swept Andean plain as Aymara villagers conduct a frenetic chase to round up wild Vicuñas for shearing.
The residents of Ucha Ucha used to form giant human cordons to corner the animals and harvest their fine fur, which produces one of the world's most expensive wools. But motorcycles are ideal on the flat, treeless landscape of Bolivia's altiplano.
Unprocessed wool from the Vicuña, the smallest of the South American camelids, fetches between $300 and $500 a kilogram (about $140-$230 a pound). The fiber is highly prized by the world of fashion, and has been used to make suits for movie stars like Daniel Craig and tycoons like Donald Trump.
Ucha Ucha is 14,800 feet (4,500 meters) above sea level in the Apolobamba nature reserve, 167 miles (269 kilometers) northwest of the Bolivian capital of La Paz. The icy wind and burning sun at this altitude slice and bake the skin of the area's indigenous residents.
Every two years, about a hundred men and women from Ucha Ucha come together for the biennial Vicuña shearing, which lasts four days.
First, they make an offering to the Pachamama (Mother Earth), then the motorcycles herd the animals into a corral made with sticks and netting, where the Vicuñas are held for about five hours before they are released.
Two men hold each Vicuña down while another shears its fur. With luck they can gather 40 kilograms (nearly 90 pounds) of wool in a day.
"Before we sheared them every year, but now we do it every two years because the hairs are so small. The profits are divided among the community's members and it is a great help because at this altitude nothing grows," said Gregorio Blanco, head of the shearers.
Ucha Ucha residents say they made about $300 per family in the last shearing in 2011 and expect to make about the same this year.
Vicuñas were once hunted to near extinction but now hunting them is forbidden and the Aymara shear and release the animals. The Vicuña population has rebounded.
While llamas and alpacas have been domesticated, the Vicuña still lives in the wild.