The Alpaca is a South American camelid, vital to the continued survival of populations in the Andes. The animals are valuable to their owners not only because of the quality and quantity of the fleece produced but also as a pack animal for trading goods between villages.
Alpaca are remarkable for their resistance to adverse environments, with pastures at 3500-4800 mts and to temperature ranges of +/- 20c between day and night. They are also relatively easy to breed.
The most common strain of alpaca is the Huacaya (pronounced wuh-kai-ya). The hardier of the two strains their hair is heavier and tends to be shorter.
The Incas selected from the huacaya herds, animals which were a rare phenotype with a dominant gene that gave rise to the Suri strain. This animal, which although it has a similar physiology to the huacaya, possesses a totally different hair. It is clearly distinguishable even though the natural colours are the same.
Suri alpaca is a silky, lustrous, wavy fibre with at least 1 micron of fineness more than huacaya, very similar to mohair. It is used for plaids which are appreciated for their low-weight, warm water-proof soft fabric with excellent wearabiity. It is also popular for blankets manufactured using the large selection of natural colours. Suri alpaca represents about 10% of overall alpaca fibre production.
In the past the alpaca was classified as “lama glama pacos” because its physiological characteristics suggested it was related to the llama. Only in the last 15 years or so has an in-depth study of DNA allowed us to identify and classify it classify it as more closely related to the vicuna.
After the last ice age camelids populated all of South America. It is thought that domestication of the alpaca and the llama began in about 4-5000BC by Pukara Indios on the high plains around Titcaca Lake, between south east Peru and the north of Bolivia and Chile. Graffiti, pottery and Inca gold suggested that breeding of the alpaca was a status symbol.
Around 1532 the Spanish conquistadors unfortunately pushed the native population and their herds of alpaca and llamas relentlessly towards higher, inaccessible territories. This left the lower pastures free for cattle and sheep brought by the new settlers.
The Incas were excellent breeders and there are examples of alpaca fibre extracted from the remains of clothing on mummies found at their archaeological sites. These fibres were found to be much finer than the present quality. Unfortunately with destruction of the Inca Empire, the population and the animals were dispersed and their ancient traditions were lost. Consequent spontaneous cross-breeding resulted in a decrease in the quality of the fibre.
Today, with the intervention of UNO/FAO governments and local industries, a programme has been developed to improve the quality of the fibre and breeding techniques. Many alpaca and llama have been exported to the United States, Australia, New Zealand and also to Europe. In Australia they were often placed in flocks of sheep, especially at lambing times, to protect them through their bites and kicks against attacks from foxes and dingoes.
In the United States there are amateur breeding movements and some animals are used in “pet therapy.” The value of the adult females varies from US$6,000 to US$12,000 with some studs exceeding US$100,000. Currently, the Peruvian Government has banned the exportation of live animals if not sterilized.