You saw alpaca investments mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. Or maybe you have seen the ads on TV. Sure, they're cute, but what is an alpaca, and why all the 'buzz' about alpaca farming?
What is an alpaca?
Alpacas are domestic members of the camel family from the altiplano region of South America, prized for the production of fine fleece.
The native peoples of the Andean mountain regions of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia depend on the fleece and meat of their alpacas for survival in a harsh region where little else grows. The spinning, dying, and weaving of alpaca fiber is the basis of a rich cultural tradition of textile production.
The best grades of alpaca fiber were once reserved for the ruling classes of the native people, before the arrival of the Spanish. Coarser grades are used to make rugs, ropes, and other textiles for heavy uses, as they were in ancient times. New to most North Americans, alpaca fiber has been cherished by Europeans since the 1800's, and later by Japanese fashion designers.
Sustainably produced alpaca is a wonderful alternative to petroleum derived artifical fibers, like polyester and nylon. Even fibers like 'soy silk' and bamboo 'silk' are manufactured using chemically intensive processes. Alpaca fiber requires only a gentle washing. Alpaca fiber is wonderful - naturally!
Ancient ruins in Peru.
Vicuna in native habitat.
- Alpacas are domestic livestock, developed by pre-Incan cultures 6,000 years ago.
- Alpacas stand about 36" at the withers, (top of the shoulders)
- Averaging from 110 to 175 pound for females, and 125 to 190 lbs for males, alpacas are about one-third the size of llamas.
- Like llamas, alpacas are part of the camel family. Llamas are the domestic form of the guanaco. Alpacas were domesticated from the wild vicuna (see photos at left).
- Llamas were bred primarily for packing, but alpacas were bred for superior fleece qualities.
- The harsh altiplano region of the Andean mountain range where alpacas originate, at 10,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level, ensured the hardiness of the species.
- Alpaca fiber is stronger, warmer, and lighter than wool of a similar micron (thickness).
- Alpaca fiber does not contain lanolin.
- After an eleven month gestation, alpaca females produce one offspring or calf per year, but are usually called a 'cria'.
- Depending on the soils and climate, an acre of well managed pasture can support four to six alpacas - more if additional feed is provided.
- Alpacas are ruminants, and chew a cud, like cows. This allows them to efficiently digest forages and to thrive on land that will not support cultivation.
- Properly managed, livestock like alpacas that browse and/or graze, can restore fertility to land depleted by industrial crop farming methods. , - Though not cuddly, most alpacas are easily trained to walk on a lead, and if handled intelligently, seem to enjoy the company of people.
Except for the occasional zoo specimen, alpacas have been raised outside of South America only since 1983. It was once believed that these animals would not survive outside of their highland habitiat in the Andean altiplano region, where temperatures can fluctuate from as low as -5 F at night to as high as 85 F in a single day.1 This harsh environment has forged a hardy species, so long as their basic needs are met.
Now found on nearly every continent, alpaca farming continues to grow in popularity.
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1. Malkini, commercial alpaca operation in Peru
The alpaca was seen as a diving gift, their meat and fiber allowing people to survive in an area that many would consider almost uninhabitable.
Alpacas were once thought to have been developed from the llama, which was acknowledged to be the domestic form of the guanaco. All four of the South American camelids will readily interbreed in captivity and produce fertile offspring, adding to the confusion. Archeological finds and recent advances in DNA analysis have confirmed that the alpaca was instead developed from the vicuna.
For more information on the origin of the alpaca, click here.
Alpacas in Peru
In addition to the famous ruins of stone, the ancient peoples of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile left behind evidence of a rich cultural tradition of high quality textiles, which continues today. With great skill and the simplest of looms, they weave intricate patterns. The 'backstrap looms' many of these masterful works are woven on consist of a stick in the ground around which lengths of measured yarns are wrapped to create the warp, with the ends tied to the waist.
Around 6,000 years ago, archelogical sites in the Andean region reveal evidence of the domestication of the vicuna, which became the alpaca. In addition to meat and hides, these animals provided the fibers that are still spun today by the local women as they have been for thousands of years, on simple drop spindles.