Bolivian Snowstorm Imperils More Than 40,000 Llamas and Alpacas

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As Bolivia suffered its worst snowstorms in 20 years, thousands of people were left stranded and commerce was slowed to a grinding halt in the usually-dry region of Potosi.

But throughout this human drama, another story was unfolding that could have as profound an effect on the Bolivian economy as the loss of crops from the storms: the snow has destroyed the food sources for approximately 41,000 camelids, according to the governor of Potosi. These llamas — the official animal of Bolivia — and alpacas were already suffering a diminished population after an estimated 20% died from droughts in 2010. Many more could now be affected by their pastures being buried underneath heavy snow.

(LIST: The Top 10 Big, Bad Blizzards)

Camelids are economically and cultural important to the rural areas of Bolivia which use them as pack animals, food, and their sources of wool.

With 7,000 locals and tourists stranded in the snow, the Bolivian authorities have requested assistance from neighboring countries in the form of equipment; the government only owns two helicopters according to some reports.

Everett Rosenfeld is a TIME contributor. Find him on Twitter at @Ev_Rosenfeld. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.