Overview & History
Alpaca, llama, guanaco and vicuna are part of the camel (camelid) family tree. Treasured by the ancient Inca civilization, there are today about 3.5 million alpaca in the Andean Altiplano region of Peru, Chile and Bolivia. Camelids are a modified ruminant, not only eating less grass than most other animals but converting it to energy very efficiently. Unlike the true ruminant they have three compartments to their stomach not four. It is for these reasons that camelids can survive in areas that would otherwise be unsuitable for other domesticated animals.
Alpaca are thought to have evolved from the wild vicuna and are generally smaller than the llama standing at just under a metre at the shoulder. They produce a wonderful, heavy fleece of fine strong fibre that comes in 22 basic colours including whites, fawns, browns, blacks and greys. A fully fleeced alpaca with good coverage around the face and legs is an extremely beautiful and captivating animal and a good reason why so many farmers and lifestyle block holders have entered the industry. Alpaca are easy to handle and make delightful companions. Alpaca fibre is world renowned for its soft handle and lustre and is often compared to fine merino and cashmere.
There are two types of alpaca:
The huacaya is characterized by a thick dense fleece growing perpendicularly from the body. Good huacaya fibre has a soft handle, brightness of sheen and frequently has a defined crimp throughout the blanket area.
The rare and prized suri is distinguished by its long silky fibre that grows parallel to the body and hangs in long, separate, distinctive pencil locks. Its softness and exquisite lustre ensures a premium price on the world fibre market. The world population of suris is estimated at 3% of the alpaca population, however in New Zealand suri make up 10%.
Differences between Alpaca and Llama
Llamas are “beasts of burden”. They are used for carrying loads on their backs in special packs, like the Dromedary and Bactrian camel. Although not seen as a fibre producer, llama fibre is used a lot in South America. They have a very soft undercoat, with stronger fibre on the outside. Some llama are very coarse, others can be silky and lustrous
Alpaca life span
Around 15-20 years.
History of the Alpaca
Alpacas are part of the camelid family from the suborder Tylopoda. This suborder is divided into two groups - Old World Camelids and New World Camelids. The Old World Camelids include the bactrian and dromedary camels, while the New World Camelids include the alpaca, guanaco, llama and vicuna. The domestication of alpaca and llama occurred approximately 6000 years ago. The vicuna and guanaco are not domesticated animals, and still roam wild in South America.
The New World Camelids are known today as South American Camelids (SACs) and are collectively referred to as lamoids. Over the years there has been controversy over how the SACs should be classified. Today it is widely accepted that the alpaca, llama and guanaco are species within the genus Lama, while the vicuna is classified as a species within the genus Vicugna. All members of the camelid family (including camels) have the same number of chromosomes (2n=74) and produce fertile hybrids (crosses).
The evolution of SACs began in North America over 40 million years ago. It was during the Pleistocene epoch (3 million years ago) that lamoids and camels flourished. North and South America were geographically isolated until oceanic volcanic eruptions during the Pleistocene epoch formed an open land connection between them. During this period lamoids migrated into South America. The earliest lamoid genus to migrate was the Hemiauchenia. Species from this genus evolved in order to adapt to their new surroundings. Long limbs gave way to shorter limbs, which were better suited to the harsh mountainous terrain of the South American environment. It is believed that animals from the Hemiauchenia genus evolved into three other genera - the Palaeolama, Lama, and Vicugna. Today the lamoids of South America live in the altiplano region almost 4000m above sea-level.
The Importance of Alpaca
Lamoids have played an important role in the survival of all the different cultures that have ruled South America over the centuries. Today lamoids are still important providers of food, fuel (fecal pellets for heating), clothing, transportation of goods and religious ceremony. However, it was during the Inca rule of the 1400s that the value of alpaca fibre was realised. The Incas (South American Indians) ruled the Pacific Coast and Andean Highlands of South America from the 1450s until 1532. Through their advanced weaving techniques they were able to produce exquisite cloths made from alpaca, llama and vicuna fibre. The detail and quality of these cloths became a status of wealth, with the Royal family reserving the finest and best quality fibre for themselves. As the wealth of the country was dependent on this luxurious fibre, alpacas were considered property of the "government" and were rigidly controlled. Organised breeding programs meant that alpacas thrived during these times.
After the Spanish invasion of 1532 alpaca numbers dramatically declined. The Spanish introduced their own livestock (sheep, goats and cattle) - pushing the lamoids further up the altiplano region of the Andean mountains to elevations of over 4000m above sea level. The Spanish invasion not only decreased the number of alpacas, but disease wiped out a large number of the indigenous Indian population. This had a dramatic impact on the breeding of alpaca. Organised breeding programs were lost and llamas and alpaca were left to interbreed. It has been suggested that this mixed breeding practice transformed the alpaca of the Inca period from a single-coated animal to the two-coated animal of today. This is supported by fossil evidence that show skin samples of 1000 year-old mummified remains of alpaca to have finer fibre with more uniformity than our modern day alpaca.
There were a number of attempts to export alpacas out of South America following the Spanish Invasion. These attempts were largely unsuccessful, with the majority of animals dying before they reached their country of destination. It wasn’t until Sir Titus Salt (an English wool merchant) began importing alpaca fibre into England in 1836 that world interest started to grow. Large amounts of fibre and alpacas soon left South America. It wasn’t long before alpaca numbers in South America dramatically declined. In 1843 (in an attempt to safeguard their industry) Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina placed a ban on all live exportation of alpaca and unprocessed alpaca fibre.
Chile, however, did not support this ban until 1930. In 1847, under orders from the Governor of New South Wales, Charles Ledger imported Chilean alpaca into Australia. Some of this herd made its way over to New Zealand and was farmed in Canterbury for several years. Neither country was successful at getting the alpaca industry up and running at this time.
By 1970 the Peruvian government realised that the neglect of its alpaca population was significantly affecting its economy. Alpaca numbers still continued to decline due to poaching and poor breeding practices. As a result the government confiscated land owned by absentee landlords and returned it to the pastoralists, who were left to improve the quality and quantity of South American alpaca herds.
In 1987, New Zealander Ian Nelson pioneered the way for exportation of alpaca out of South America to become possible. Today, New Zealand has approximately 20,000 registered alpacas. Peru now has an estimated 3 million alpaca – approximately 90% of the world's population. Peruvian alpaca are still considered the most dense and finest alpaca in the world.