An Ancient Livestock

By Barbara Lang

Every alpaca breeder at some time has been asked "what is the difference between a llama and an alpaca?"

The physical differences are the most obvious. The easiest difference to spot is the ears. llamas have long banana-shaped ears while alpacas have shorter spear-shaped ears. The llama's back is long and straight with the tail set high whereas the back of an alpaca appears shorter and tends to round down at the rump with the tail set lower.

One of the big differences between the two is size. Most alpacas weigh between 100 and 175 lbs when fully grown. Llamas on the other hand weigh in the neighbourhood of 200 to 350 lbs. with some as heavy as 400 lbs. Owners of both llamas and alpacas really notice the size difference when it comes to toenail trimming time. Llamas and alpacas depend on flight for defence so definitely do not like having their legs restrained.

The history of the two follows a parallel path. Scientists believe that both the llama and alpaca started out as members of the camelid family. Apparently they lived in North America about 40 million years ago with the camelid migration leaving North American starting about three million years ago.

Some camelids went to Asia via the Bering land bridge which connected Alaska to Siberia. They became the one-hump dromedary camel of Africa and the two-humped Bactrian camel of Asia.

The ancestors of our llamas and alpacas crossed the Caribbean land bridge to South America and eventually became guanacos and vicunas, which are believed to be the forerunners of the llamas and alpacas.

Guanacos and vicunas still live in South America although their numbers are not as plentiful as they once were. The graceful dainty vicuna possesses the finest animal fibre in the world. This wonderful fleece almost put them on the list of extinct animals.

The Government of Peru, where the 100,000 surviving vicunas live, had them declared an endangered species. This measure afforded them worldwide protection against international trade in vicunas and their byproducts. As the herd continues to increase in numbers, restrictions have been eased allowing vicunas to be captured and sheared on a regular basis.

Archeological evidence suggests that domestication of guanacos and vicunas began about 6,000 years ago. There are no wild llamas or alpacas in South America.

With the exception of the Pucara culture, which flourished about 2,000 years ago and was thought to have bred alpacas for high-quality fibre, it was the Incas which developed husbandry practices which favoured the llama as the "beast of burden" and the alpaca as the fleece producing animals.

The Incas stringently regulated the husbandry of llamas and alpacas. They insured that the two camelids were kept separate so no interbreeding could occur and they kept meticulous breeding records.

Separation in their native South America is made easier because of the different dietary preferences. Alpacas tend to prefer wet areas that have soft grass plant types while llamas prefer drier, coarser straw-like plants.

The Incas realized that cross-breeding of llamas and alpacas was not desirable. The waris (male llama/female alpaca or the mistis (male alpaca/female llama) possessed neither the high quality fibre of the alpaca nor the carrying capacity of the llama.

The conquest of the Incas by the Spanish had disastrous effects on the raising of llamas and alpacas. The Spanish decimated the llama and alpaca herds and what they didn't kill died of imported diseases caught from European animals brought by the Spanish. The were so thorough in their eradication of the Inca culture that valuable husbandry records were lost. The surviving natives and animals fled to the high ground to eak out their meagre existence.

It wasn't until 1860 that Europe recognized the value of alpaca fibre. This signalled the beginning of European involvement in the processing of alpaca fibre which lead to alpaca being established as a luxury fibre.

Strife was again to play a major role in the fate of llama and alpaca herds in South America when in 1969, a military coup initiated radical land reform with large holdings being wrested from the hands of the owners and given to the poor. The result was some large land owners slaughtering their entire herds before the government could confiscate them as well as large herds being put in the hands of inexperienced managers. The alpacas and the growing fibre industry suffered severe consequences as a result.

Between the years 1967 and 1992 the alpaca population declined by nearly 50% to between 2.1 and 2.5 million animals.

Despite efforts to increase the herds, ongoing terrorist activity had a serious negative impact on the ability to undertake long term breeding programs. By 1994 many of the terrorist leaders were jailed, terrorism decreased considerably, and optimism about improving the alpaca industry increased.