Alpacas are members of the camelid family along with llamas, vicuna and guanaco. Collectively, they are known as South American Camelids (SAC’s) or New World Camelids. They are related to Bactrian and Dromedary camels.
Alpacas were domesticated, from the vicuna, around 6,000 years ago by the Incas of South America. The valuable fibre they produced became known as ‘The Fibre of the Gods’ and ‘The Gold of the Andes’. The Inca’s bred superb, very fine fleeced alpacas before the arrival of the Spanish, who slaughtered most of the alpacas in order to make way for sheep.
Today, the Andean people are dependant on the alpaca for their livelihood. They shear the alpacas and spin the fibre to make colourful hats, shawls and other clothing. Fibre is sold to commercial buyers to pay for staple goods and some animals are eaten. Many family farmers keep small herds whilst more commercial farmers selectively breed high quality alpacas. Some of these are exported around the world. Careful, selective breeding around the world is working to provide a luxury fibre product of which the Incas would be proud.
Alpacas are found high in the altiplano of Peru, Chile and Bolivia. At 4-5,000 metres above sea level the environment is very harsh with widely fluctuating temperatures and very poor grazing. Land is undulating and often steep with little shelter. The alpaca has become uniquely adapted to this extreme environment. In the UK where the climate is generally milder alpacas and llamas tend to thrive. Guanacos are also kept by a few people in the UK. However, these are wild animals and require a zoo license and tall, secure fencing to be kept.