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All about alpacas

The alpaca, whose scientific name is vicugna pacos, is the most numerous of the four South American camelid species. With an estimated population of 3.5 to 4 million in Peru, representing 75% of the world’s total, the alpaca provides the main means of sustenance for thousands of families in the high Andes. Alpacas were first introduced into Australia in 1989, where nowadays approximately 200.000 animals live on farms.  

Alpacas vs llamas

Both, alpacas and llamas, are camelids from South America. But the llama is about twice the size of the alpaca. The alpaca is usually 1.20m to 1.50m in height and weights between 45kg and 79kg. It has a smaller and more curved profile than the llama, shorter pear-shaped ears and a distinguishing fringe of hair on its forehead. Llamas are far and away the largest South American camelid, attaining weights of as much as 200kg.  Besides those two, there are existing two more camelids in South America: the vicuna and the guanaco. The vicuna is the smallest and rarest one and its fleece is considered as world’s finest fibre. Guanacos are bigger than vicunas, but a lot smaller than llamas. Both are wild protected species, whereas alpacas and llamas are domesticated.

Difference of alpaca and llama

The Habitat of alpacas

Up at elevations of more than 4.000m above sea level among impressive landscapes where daily temperature variations can be as much as 30 degrees Celsius, thousands of rural families raise flocks of alpacas, as has been done for thousands of years. Alpacas have been domesticated between 4000 and 5000 B.C. by ancient Peruvians. The use of alpaca fibre in textiles began around 2500 B.C., and became increasingly important. Until today, shearing the animals and selling their fibre every year, is the principal income of those families. There is no agriculture where the alpaca lives, the economy is based on livestock. However, alpacas are very adaptable and have been exported all over the world, including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, since 1984.

Alpacas in Peru

The different types of alpacas

There are two varieties of the alpaca: Huacaya and the Suri. Huacaya is the more numerous breed in Peru, representing 93% of the population, and has relatively short, teddy-like fibre, which is dense, curly and voluminous. The hair covers almost all the body, only the face and lower parts of the legs having a covering of short fibres. The Suri has long, straight hair which forms silky and exceptionally lustrous dreadlocks.

Difference of Huacaya and Suri alpaca

The habits of alpacas

Alpacas are very social creatures with very strong herding instincts. They need the company of other animals to thrive. Alpacas eat only vegetation, mostly grass and hay. Unlike other livestock, they eat small amounts of plants. In average, alpacas eat 1.5% of their body weight per day. Alpacas can get up to 20 years old. Female alpacas give birth once a year to one baby after a gestation period of 11 months. Alpacas and llamas can cross-breed, this created offspring is called huarizo.

Alpaca family