Alpacas (Lama pacos) are members of the South American camelid family and are closely related to their cousins the llamas, guanacos and vicuñas. Alpacas are indigenous to the Peruvian highlands, where they were domesticated thousands of years ago. There are an estimated 3.5–4 million alpacas in South America, and about 95% of them are found in the southern regions of Peru.
Alpacas, along with llamas, were treasured animals for the Inca civilization and closely integrated into the daily life of the Andean region. Both animals are the result of human intervention in their breeding. Many thousands of years ago, pastoral hunters and herders experimented with the breeding of the wild guanaco. Through a gradual process of trial and error, they learned the intricacies of artificial selection. By 3000 or 4000 BC, the ancient guanaco hunters had successfully “created” two new races of animals: the llama and the alpaca. Whereas llamas were used as a means of transport and communication, alpacas were used for clothing, fertiliser and fuel, and they were also eaten. The alpaca’s finest fibres were considered of such value that they were only used by Inca royalty. The Incas considered the alpaca a source of wealth and used it as a medium of exchange. Nowadays, the alpaca is the key component to the economy of over 65,000 rural families, named “Pastores Alpaqueros” or Indian herders/breeders, in the Andean region of Peru. These families practise a traditional breeding system that has been passed on from father to son and share the same native environment as the animals they herd. The women maintain the spinning and weaving traditions of their ancestors and make rugs, mats, sweaters, gloves, socks, hats, belts, jackets, etc. that are worn by their families or sold at local markets. Family-owned businesses and alpaca herders depend on the alpaca for their survival and well-being.
The camelids are herbivorous mammals belonging to the family Camelidae. Their evolutionary history starts some 45 million years ago in North America with the Protylopus petersoni, an animal 30cm in height which was the forerunner of a series of species in which the tendency was to increasing size. It is known that approximately 3 million years ago, the hemiauchenia, a North American camelid similar to the llama, migrated to South America, but little is known about its evolution because the fossil record is fragmentary.
Alpacas were first imported to the United States in 1984. Alpacas are now being successfully raised and enjoyed throughout North America and abroad. There are two types of alpacas – the Huacaya and the Suri. The lifespan of the alpaca is about 20 years and gestation is 11.5 months. Alpacas eat grasses and chew a cud. Adult alpacas are about 36″ tall at the withers and generally weigh between 100 and 200 pounds. They are gentle and easy to handle. Alpacas don’t have incisors, horns, hooves or claws. Clean-up is easy since alpacas deposit droppings in only a few places in the paddock. They require minimal fencing and can be pastured at 5 to 10 per acre.
|Species||Lama guanicoe Müller (Guanaco)
Lama glama (Llama)
Vicugna vicugna (Vicuña)
Vicugna pacos (Alpaca)
Two of these species are domesticated (the llama and the alpaca) while the other two are wild (the guanaco and the vicuña). With the exception of the guanaco, which may also be found in zones at sea level, all of these species inhabit semi-arid terrain at altitudes ranging from 3800m to 4500m above sea level and where temperatures vary between –15ºC and +23ºC.
The llama and the alpaca were domesticated approximately 6000 years ago and almost all the pre-Inca cultures used the camelids for food and clothing. During the Inca period, greater importance was accorded to raising these animals and this activity became well organised.
In the Upper Andean zone, especially in Peru and Bolivia, the raising of llamas and alpacas constitutes a very important economic activity which, in many cases, represents one of the few means of subsistence available to rural families.
The camelids provide the following products:
* Fiber, which has unique characteristics in the textile industry
* Meat, which has a very high nutritional value
* Furs and hides, used in industry and by craftsmen
* Manure, used as fertilizer and fuel.