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Llamas and alpacas are dying because of an unusually cold winter in the Andes

The situation is particularly acute in southern Peru where 55,000 alpacas have died in just one region where even these hardy highland grazers are going hungry and getting sick.

by Alan Hernandez
Jul 22 2016, 4:25pm

Photo de Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo

Hundreds of thousands of alpacas, llamas, and other highland grazers are getting ill, and many of them are dying, because of unusually low temperatures in Peru's southern Andes.

In Puno, the hardest hit region in the country, local authorities have reported a particularly intense impact — 55,000 deaths — among the alpaca herds that roam the area's high mountain planes that often top 13,000 feet (4,000 meters).

William Morales Cáceres, the head of Puno's agricultural ministry, said a total of 279,000 alpacas had been "impacted" by sickness or death because of the temperatures that have regularly dropped to 9 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 23 degrees Celsius. He said the figure was 30,000 for llamas (that are less common in the area) and 370,000 for sheep.

The animals that graze in the high Andes — particularly in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador — are used to the cold. But this year's winter has been especially harsh in southern Peru with snow falls continually covering grasslands and freezing creeks.

Morales said that normally hardy highland alpacas, llamas, and, sheep are eating so poorly they have become very vulnerable to catching pneumonia and other infections, as well as to bouts of diarrhea.

"They get weaker and get ill," Morales said. "A lot are dying."

Even when there is less snow, the icy temperatures are still wreaking havoc. Julio Gil Pacheco, the interior minister of Tacna, recently told reporters that the extreme cold has "burned" 53 percent of the grasslands in the region which is located about 250 miles south of Puno.

"The fodder is running out and it may well mean that the animals no longer have anything to eat," Juan Quispe Mamani, the mayor of the province of Candarave, also affected by the climate conditions, told reporters last week. "We have a serious problem."

The first signs of how harsh Peru's winter would be came even before it officially started in June, and prompted outgoing President Ollanta Humala to declare a state of emergency at the end of May.

The declaration brought the distribution of blankets and other promises of help to confront the low temperatures that have since been blamed for the death of 48 children from pneumonia. The emergency also brought programs to distribute vitamins, antibiotics, and fodder to the herders of alpacas, llamas, and other animals in the most affected regions.

Indigenous children in Puno, located in the Peruvian Andes, playing on the snow.
(Photo by Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo)

The emergency period ran out in mid July, though there is talk that it could be extended.

"The temperatures can be expected to drop further in upcoming days," said Martí Bonshoms, a forecaster from Peru's national meteorology service. "The situation will probably not get better until September."

Bonshoms said that, while unusual, such cold spells in the mountains are not unheard of. He said that humid air drifting in from the lowland Amazon normally limits how far temperatures in the mountains drop, but that this year the jungle weather has been "atypically dry."

The forecaster insisted that there is no direct evidence of a link between these phenomena and climate change. Morales, the head of Puno's agricultural authorities, said he does not need scientific studies to be convinced.

"You can feel that the climate is changing," he said, also pointing to unusually low rainfall this year in the typically humid months of January and February. "It is getting more extreme."

Morales added that the situation could lead to outbreaks of anger if more is not done to help the local, largely indigenous, population in Puno for whom herding alpacas, llamas, and sheep is a major source of income.

The small and sometimes aggressive alpacas are particularly prevalent in Puno. Along with the larger, longer-necked, and more friendly llamas, they are prized for their wool, some of which ends up woven into clothes sold in the swankiest stores in the world.

Related: A gorilla, a polar bear, a jaguar, and two lions: Rare animals keep dying in captivity in Latin America

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten