SAN ANTONIO DE PUTINA, Peru (AP) – Life for the thousands of indigenous families raising alpacas and sheep in Peru's southern Andes has become a nightmare amid a bitter cold wave that has killed tens of thousands of their animals and sickened their children.
Temperatures have fallen to minus 23 Celsius (minus 9.4 Fahrenheit) here in this year's Southern Hemisphere winter. So far this season, 50,000 alpacas have died and authorities fear up 300,000 of the animals could perish if temperatures stay that low.
With grasslands blanketed by ice and snow, the alpacas suffer hunger, and when the ice melts the damaged vegetation is burned yellow by the midday Andean sun.
Modesto Cantuta and his wife, Felipa, have lost 15 of their flock of 80 animals. From the door of their adobe home, they can see the damage to their pasture. The loss of the alpacas is economically devastating. The couple is wondering how they can put together the money they send their four children each month to attend a university in Puno's far-away provincial capital.
"We don't want them to be like us, to suffer so much," Cantuta said as he skinned one of his dead alpacas with a knife.
Sheep, the only other animal that can survive on the high grassland plateaus, are also dying in large numbers amid the bone-chilling cold.
Amid the icy chill, a lack of heating in most homes and malnutrition accentuated by the alpaca deaths also affects the children. Two months into the cold season an estimated 14,000 children in the Andes have suffered from respiratory illnesses and 105 died, according to government figures.
Peru is the world's largest producer of alpaca wool, an almost silky natural fiber coveted by the world's top designers. But in stark contrast to the high prices charged by the likes of Armani and Gucci is the daily struggle by the shepherds whose livelihood depends on the trade.
The more than 120,000 families that make a living from shearing the soft, featherweight fiber earn as little as $1,200 a year, which works out to less than half of Peru's minimum wage.
Peru's government has declared a state of emergency over the cold and promised $3 million in relief, but shepherds say it has not been enough.