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Environment : Castaways in Caribbean, Llamas Wait for Rescue : Antigua was just a stop for a herd from Peru on its way to the United States. But the deal fell through and now half the herd is dead. But a wildlife preservation group is trying to find a way back to the Andes for the gentle creatures.

August 21, 1990|DON A. SCHANCHE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WILLY ISLAND, Antigua — After languishing for more than a year as virtual castaways on this scrubby tropical island in the eastern Caribbean, the shaggy remnants of a herd of llamas and alpacas from the high slopes of the Andes may soon be rescued under a plan put together by the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

But the future welfare of the 130 or so survivors from a herd that originally numbered 268 is still uncertain as an embarrassed Antiguan government, the government of Peru, the entrepreneurial American importer of the animals and the protection society continue to haggle over an agreement to fly them to an Andean refuge.

Meanwhile, the gentle creatures, which the promoters still believe they can sell to American lovers of bizarre pets for more than $2 million, languish in a makeshift wire corral, 60 by 105 feet, atop a hillock on this six-acre desert island in Farley Bay, off the east coast of Antigua.

The doe-eyed llamas and slightly smaller and woollier alpacas were born to roam widely and graze at altitudes above 10,000 feet. Here they appear to be healthy but uncomfortable as they nudge one another for standing room in the sparse shade offered by plastic tents that have been mostly blown to shreds by the steady trade winds.

Since Easter weekend, 1989, when the scheme to import the animals into the United States went awry, they have lived on a diet of livestock food pellets, hay and water brought several times a week from mainland Antigua by boat.

Their plight grew out of an ambitious plan by a small group of investors led by Keith Kerr, a Palmetto, Fla., builder who owns a private zoo, to buy llamas in Chile for $50 to $120 each and sell them for thousands of dollars a head in the United States. American llama lovers have paid up to $20,000 each for the estimated 25,000 llamas already in the United States, where a prize stud or a breeding female can fetch $100,000 or more.

The key ingredient of the scheme was to have been a disease-free quarantine station on Barbuda, the lightly populated sister island in this former British colony now known formally as Antigua and Barbuda. After assuring Antiguan authorities last year that they would soon have U.S. Department of Agriculture approval, Kerr and an American partner, David Strickland, built an elongated beachfront shed connected to a loading wharf to be used for supervised quarantine of the llamas and future shipments of the animals.

Antiguan officials now say they were deceived by Kerr and Strickland into believing that the station had USDA approval and would become a thriving enterprise. Kerr says he received an informal OK from the USDA.

But the American agency said recently that it has not received an official request and that approval would be unlikely in any case since Antigua and Barbuda have never been certified as free of foot-and-mouth disease.

"What they had in Barbuda at most was a holding station for animals," said Dr. Radcliffe Robbins, a concerned Antigua veterinarian who wants to see the llamas sent back to the Andes. "A quarantine station with the necessary controls never existed."

The promoters went ahead despite this uncertainty and sent for the animals, which were flown to Antigua in a cargo jet, then barged to the Barbuda wharf on the Thursday before Easter weekend last year.

They had not reckoned on resistance from Barbuda's fiercely independent 1,200 residents, who despise their Antiguan governors and resist all Antiguan efforts to encroach upon their largely unspoiled island. After grumbling for weeks about construction of the animal shed, which they feared would be used to house diseased lions and tigers, the Barbudans blockaded the wharf with their bodies all day on Good Friday, frustrating every attempt to unload the llamas and alpacas.

After several days of stalemate, the Antiguan government bowed to the Barbudans and withdrew its support of the quarantine station. With nowhere else to go, the llamas and alpacas, by now numbering only 253 as the result of an accident on the cargo plane, were put ashore on Willy Island. Scores more died of stress and heat, according to Michael O'Sullivan, head of the Toronto office of the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Getting a precise count of the animals is difficult, but on a recent day there appeared to be 130 in the corral.

When the furor over landing the animals died down, so did local interest; but it revived with a jolt last spring, when the protection society threatened to call for a tourist boycott of Antigua unless something was done. The threat struck a nerve: More than 70% of Antigua's gross national product derives from tourism.

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