The rare and exotic alpaca is a creature of antiquity that is rapidly gaining popularity around the world. Highly prized for their luxurious fleece, the alpaca has been considered a treasure of the Andes Mountains for millenia.
Alpacas are very small, lovable members of the camel family. The camelid family also includes llamas, guanacos, and vicunas from South America, and the Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Asia and Africa. This family of animals originated on the plains of North America about 10 million years ago. Each of the members of the camelid family have their own distinct personalities and all have very different purposes in life. Some camelids carry things or guard flocks of sheep, while others like the vicuna and alpaca produce soft, luxurious fleeces.
It is believed that about 6,000 years ago alpacas were created through selective breeding which was heavily influenced by the vicuna. There are similarities in size, fiber, and dentition (teeth) between the alpaca and the wild vicuna. Today there are about 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands, most of which can be found in Peru.
Alpacas are found indigenously only in South America, especially along the west-central part of the continent, in the countries of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, with a very high concentration around Lake Titicaca, a body of water high in the Andes Mountain Range that straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru.
Alpaca fleece first captured the attention of the ancient Incan royalty hundred of years ago. Clothing for the royal family and high government officials was made exclusively from alpaca fiber. In fact, reverence for the buttery soft, luxurious alpaca clothing caused alpaca to become known as “The Fiber of the Gods”. The alpaca in particular was seen as a gift from Pachamama. The Andean peoples made clothing from the fiber, meals from the meat and leather from the hides. It should come as no surprise that alpacas assumed a religious significance, or that their form appears in amulets and other religious objects.
Regrettably, the alpaca suffered terribly at the hand of European conquerors in the 1500’s. As the Conquistadors brought European livestock to South America (especially sheep), most of the native alpacas were either killed or were pushed into the highest, most inhospitable region of the Andes – an area known as the “Altiplano”, which is a high mountain desert that is very windy, dry, barren, and contains sparse vegetation. Historians estimate that approximately 90% of the entire world’s population of alpacas died during the 1500’s as a result of this tragic annihilation.
In the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, massive textile mills were built in England. One mill, owned by Sir Titus Salt, was designed around the unique characteristics of processing alpaca fleece. Soon, Sir Titus had a monopoly on taking raw alpaca fiber from South America and turning it into beautiful and luxurious cloth. That cloth became a favorite of the British royal family, and from there spread to the fashion houses of Continental Europe.
In Peru in the 1940’s, Don Julio Barreda purposefully began to breed alpacas toward better fiber and specific color. He utilized better nutrition by fencing his herd and rotating pastures. By paying careful attention to genetics, he created distinct herds of both huacaya and suri alpacas, and culled out llama genes. Today he is recognized industry-wide as the world’s finest alpaca breeder. “Accoyo” alpacas are from the bloodline of his Peruvian herd.
Initially, there were no provisions for the exportation of alpacas between Chile, Bolivia, or Peru and other countries of the world. But in the mid-1980’s, due to a complex mix of geo-political and economic circumstances in South America – including significant terrorist activity in Peru – these three countries negotiated the necessary protocols to export animals to such countries as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, England, and Israel.
Large-scale alpaca importations into the U.S. occurred during a 14-year window, from 1984 to 1998. Qualified animals imported into the U.S. were issued a pedigree registration by the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (or “ARI”). This ARI certificate is a valuable document that traces the lineage of each animal, including colors, dates of birth, and important information. Information contained on those ARI pedigree certificates is verified through DNA blood-testing to ensure accuracy. In 1998, U.S. breeders closed the ARI pedigree registry to further imported animals, thus effectively stopping the flow of alpacas into the United States and preserving the value of the animals that are in the United States.
Fun Alpaca Facts
Alpacas typically have a life span of 20- 25 years; height of 32″- 39″ at the shoulder ; birth weight of 10 – 17 pounds and an adult weight of 100 – 190 pounds. Male alpacas reach sexual maturity at about 2 1/2 years of age. Females are first bred at 16 – 20 months of age. Alpacas do not have a heat cycle and can be bred any time of the year. An average gestation of 335 days produces a single baby (cria) which is usually delivered from a standing position during daylight hours. Twinning is extremely rare and rarely compatible with life.
Alpacas are shorn for their valuable fleeces. They have shaggy necks and camel-like faces with thick lips, pronounced noses, and long ears. Their large, expressive eyes seem to exhibit both wisdom and childlike curiosity. Easily domesticated, alpacas are friendly, gentle and curious. Alpacas easily learn to lead, jump in and out of vehicles, kush (sit down), and obey other simple commands taught all domestic members of the camelid family. They are popular show animals. Alpacas can also be seen at fairs and fiber fests throughout North America. No other animal which produces fiber for textile use has such an enormous variety of colors.
While hardy and generally disease resistant, basic care of yearly vaccinations, worming, and regular toe and occasional dental care is recommended. Alpacas are shorn every 12 to 18 months to harvest their exquisite fleece, and for health and management purposes.
Alpacas have two breed types: huacaya and suri. Both fleeces are soft and free of guard hair. Ninety-five (95%) percent of alpacas are huacaya, with full, puffy fleeces whose crimp or crinkle is found throughout their fleeces. The lustrous, straight fiber of the suri fleece hangs down in “dreadlocks”, giving the suri alpaca an entirely different appearance. Fibers of both types are considered luxury fibers in the textile trade because of their unique qualities.
Alpacas are modified ruminants. They rank high in digestive efficiency and do well on good quality forage and hays. Occasional supplemental feeds, vitamins, and minerals are provided when required. The alpaca is an herbivore, grazing on grass and munching weeds, shrubs and trees. They process their food through 3 stomachs where special secretions enable the animal to absorb 50% more nutrients than sheep. Low-protein feed is recommended, with additional mineral supplements for females since they are generally pregnant and/or nursing. An alpaca costs far less to feed than most traditional domestic animals.
Alpaca manure is excellent fertilizer and may be applied directly to the garden without danger of ‘burn.’ Because alpacas are not nomadic, they mark their territory with their dung piles and usually wait to get to the designated area to defecate or urinate.
Alpacas are alert, curious, calm and predictable. They need the companionship of other camelids.
Alpacas express themselves with a soft hum, with other vocalizations, and with body language, such as neck posturing, ear and tail positioning, and head tilt. They have excellent eyesight and hearing, and will alert the herd and their human keepers with a staccato alert call of perceived danger. Alpacas rarely spit at people unless frightened or abused, but will use this form of communication with each other to signal displeasure at a herd member. A pregnant female ‘spits off’ an inquisitive male to let him know she is disinterested in his advances.