The alpaca is one of four species of South American camelids.
The other three are the llama which is also a domestic animal and the vicuna and guanaco which exist only in the wild. All are browsers and grazers and, being similar to ruminants, chew their cud. They share the camel’s even toed, padded foot and unique style of lying (kushing) down with their front legs bent and directed backwards. Camelids are smaller than camels and lack the latter’s distinctive hump. The alpaca is the smallest of the domesticated South American camelids and is known for its abundant, fine fiber and gentle nature.
Until quite recently alpacas were almost non-existent outside of their native land, and few persons in this country could do more than associate the word “alpaca” with a luxurious type of sweater. Now that alpacas are establishing themselves in North America, more people are getting a glimpse of these delightful wooly animals and are asking questions about them.
A brief look at Alpaca History
As a group, South American camelids date back two million years. Current theory suggests that the alpaca is a descendent of the vicuna with its domestication taking place some six to seven thousand years ago. Alpaca breeding and husbandry reached a peak in the 11th and 12th centuries AD under the Inca Empire. During this period alpaca and llama breeding was conducted by a state organization whose members all belonged to a special nobility. Alpacas were the most valuable domestic animals of the time and were intensively selected for production of copious, fine fiber and for the perpetuation of the species. Through the centuries alpacas have also served as a source of meat and played an important role in the religion of their caretakers.
Two consequences of the 16th century Spanish conquest–the arrival of new domestic animals from Europe and the development of mining as the most lucrative business activity in Peru–drove the alpaca from its pedestal in the Inca Empire and relegated the species to the higher elevations of Bolivia and Peru. Alpaca numbers dropped and husbandry practices deteriorated in the hands of the native Andean herders whose very life was a struggle on harsh “alto plano.” Finally in the 1920’s, appreciation for alpaca fiber experienced a rebirth. By the 1980’s alpaca fiber production had risen to a strategic economic resource in Peru. Today Peru, which has over 85% of the world population of alpacas, considers the species a natural resource worthy of protection.
Until the 1980’s only a very few alpacas existed in North America, and these were scattered among a few zoos and private collections. The brief lifting of importation restrictions in 1983 and 1984 enabled the entry of alpacas from Chile and brought the North American population to some 500-600 head. Another group of alpacas arrived from Chile in 1988. In the 1990’s, alpacas have come to North America from Australia, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and New Zealand. Importation came to a halt with the closure of the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI), in 1999.
The Alpacas tolerate harsh climatic conditions that include temperature variations of more than forty degrees in a single day. Alpacas have a high resistance and can go without food or water for days. It is a single-coated animal that has an average weight of 100 to 175 pounds and an average height of 36 inches at the withers. They have a lifespan of 18 – 20 years and a gestation period of 350 days.
The Alpaca Breeds: Suri and Huacaya
“Suri Alpaca fleece is a rare, luxurious fiber regarded for bright luster, next to skin fineness, cool slick handle, and beautiful drape of elegance. No other animal fiber possesses all these features making Suri Alpaca Fiber sought after throughout the world” (courtesy of the Suri Network).
Huacaya Alpaca fleece should be fine, dense, uniform, and grow perpendicular to the skin. The fleece, which grows from individual follicles in the skin, should be made up of defined staples of crimpy “bundled” fleece. These bundles should organize themselves into staples which create a dense presentation across the animal.” (courtesy Northwest Alpacas)