A typical inhabitant of the Andes, the South American camelid has for the past 6,000 years served as a source of food, clothing and as a beast of burden for Peruvians. Moreover, the animal is a quintessential part of the personality of the highlands, and has wielded a major influence on the serene and contemplative idiosyncrasy of its tamers.
Over the centuries, various Andean cultures have crafted images of llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas, from the cave paintings of Toquepala, depicting hunting scenes, to the more sophisticated Inca pottery. These animals have also formed part of countless ritual ceremonies, whether as sacrificial victims or as companions to their overlords in their tombs.
Their origins, however, stem from distant-lands: it is believed that millions of years ago the camelid family inhabited what is now North America. Apparently at some point a group emigrated to Alaska and then over to Siberia, giving rise to the present-day Indo-European camel. Another group then emigrated south, discovering an ideal habitat in the central Andes.
Each of the four species of Andean camelid -whose identical number of chromosomes makes it possible to cross the species- has developed its own characteristics. The llama, the strongest and appreciated as a pack animal (which can carry up to 60 kg), stands around 1.90 meters tall and comes in a variety of up to 50 colors. The alpaca, whose fiber is popular in the textile industry, stands 1.50 meters tall. Its meat is also being promoted in the foodstuffs processing industry. The vicuña, which is smaller (barely 1.30 meters tall) and runs wild, features extremely fine fur which is in such demand that poachers have driven it to the verge of extinction.
Today, the animal is protected by the Peruvian State. Finally, the guanaco is the wildest of the Andean camelids, standing around 1.80 meters tall. It is also found in the highlands of Argentina and Chile.
Llamas are svelte and cannot be distinguished by color as they come in some 50 different hues. They have long legs, faces and necks and can stand 1.90 meters tall. Llamas are the most common and strongest of the Andean camelids, and are widely used as beasts of burden, as they can carry on average 40 kg a day on long trips and up to 60 kg on shorter journeys. Its average adult weight is 115 kg, and 11.5 kg at birth. The llama takes to 348 days to whelp, and while the female reaches sexual maturity, it generally mates from 2-3 years in age. The male, meanwhile, mates at the age of three. The mating and reproduction season comes between January and April, and a month after whelping, the female is ready to mate again. These reproduction characteristics are relatively common for all Andean camelids.
Llamas traditionally come in two varieties, Q'ara (with little fiber) and Ch'aku (woolly); their fiber (technically they grow "fiber" and not "wool") is less dense than that of alpacas, and on average the diameter of its fiber is 28.11 microns (a micron is a measure equivalent to one-millionth of a meter or one-thousandth of a millimeter).
Called pacocha in Quechua, the Inca language, the alpaca has a small and more curved silhouette than the llama, while its forehead features a classic tuft of fiber. The alpaca cannot be differentiated by color, as it comes in a wide range of hues. It stands up to 1.50 meters high and weighs 7 kg at birth, growing to a maximum weight of 64 kg. The animal takes 343 days to whelp, and like the llama, the female alpaca can mate at a year old. In general, alpacas have more and better-quality fiber than llamas, and come in two varieties: Wakayo and Suri.
The Wakayo has dense and spongy fiber which grows over nearly all of its body, leaving only its face and legs covered with short hairs. The Suri alpaca, meanwhile, features lank, long and silky fibers which can hang down 15 cm. The alpaca is shorn with shears or scissors generally every two years, although they can be shorn every year regardless of the time of year. Breeders can obtain 1.7 kg of fiber from every animal they shear. The diameter of the fiber is generally 25.5 microns. However, the diameter of the fiber is in direct relation to the age of the animal. Commercially speaking, the finest fiber to be found in Peru is Baby Alpaca, which is extremely soft and fine.
The vicuña is the smallest of the Andean camelids and can stand 1.30 meters high. It features a graceful body and moves with agility. Its fur is light brown along its back and nearly all over its outer body, while its chest stomach and inside legs are pure white. The animal features a tufted chest with fibers that can hang down 20 cm. At birth the vicuña weighs just 5 kg, growing to 40 kg at adulthood. Females reach puberty at a year of age but generally mate at two years; vicuñas take 340 days to whelp. Its fiber has been classified as the finest animal fiber on Earth, with an average diameter of 12.5-1.5 microns, but only grows 3 cm long. Shearings yield up to 320 gm of fiber per animal a year.
As the vicuña produces the finest fiber, it is in demand, and for a time was in danger of extinction. But today, the Peruvian government protects the species in intangible national parks. Poachers, however, continue to hunt the species, gradually whittling its numbers to 170,000 worldwide, of which 100,000 are found in Peru in areas over 3,800 meters in altitude.
The guanaco has a similar silhouette to that of the llama, with dense and short fur which comes in light reddish-brown hues with shares of black on its head and white spots around its lips, on the tips of its ears and stomach and inside legs, plus a type of neckruff. It weighs 10 kg at birth, growing to 140 kg in adulthood; it stands around 1.80m high and is common in the Andes of Chile and Argentina. Economically speaking, the animal is not given much importance and lives wild.