The South American camelids
Origin of the camelids
Camelids first appeared in North America 10 million years ago, the Laminis and the Camelinis.
3 million years ago, the camelinis crossed the Beringian land bridge (now Bering Strait) to settle in Asia and then in Africa. Later, the camelinis become the camels and dromedaries.
2 million years ago, the laminis migrated south to settle in the Andes and became vicuñas and guanacos.
The other camelids have not survived in northern continent where fossils were found.
Recent studies have allowed to determine the origin of the two other species who have been domesticated 6 or 7,000 years ago. The vicuña has given rise to the alpaca while the llama descends from the guanaco.
South American camelids usually spit when they feel disturbed. But not all do, depends on the character of each.
There are two categories of camelids in South America:
Domestic: llama and alpaca
Wild: vicuña and guanaco
Lama Glama Linnaeus
It is best known and the largest of South American camelids. There are 2 species, the Q'ara and the Ch'aku.
The full-size llama is 1.70 to to 1.80 m (5.5 to 6 ft) tall at the top of the head and can weigh between 130 and 200 kg (280 to 450 lb). The wool is generally multicolor. This animal is mainly used as pack animal, being able to load 40 kg (90 lb) on a long stretch kg and 60 kg (130 lb) in a short distance.
Llama meat is eaten, the wool and leather used in clothing and even their droppings are used as fuel.
We found llamas in the Andes, especially in Peru (80% of total population).
Lama Pacos Linnaeus
It is an animal of medium size, 80-90 cm (2.6-3 ft) at the withers and weighs up to 70 kg (155 lb). There are two breeds of alpaca:
The Huacaya, with its very dense and curly wool, like a sheep.
The Suri, with a long and wavy wool, is the finest fiber of the 2 species.
The alpaca can live 25 years, but usually no spends 10 years because beyond the wool and meat lose their qualities.
Alpaca meat is of very good quality, tasty and almost no cholesterol (0.16%).
Its characteristics are the result of a long process of adaptation to its environment, the Andes mountains. Alpaca can live up to 4,500 m (15,000 ft) above sea level where climatic conditions are extreme, with a variation of 30ºC (85ºF) between day and night, low oxygen, intense sunlight and freezing winds.
Alpaca fleece is very thin (24 micrometers in diameter - half the sheep), warmer soft and light thanks to micro air bubbles contained, waterproof, flame-resistant and resistant to solar radiation. Its thermal properties are superior to those of mohair and cashmere and even more of sheep.
There are several qualities: the "suri" fiber is better than "huacaya" and you can feel the difference between "baby alpaca" (animal less than two years), the finest, and adult.
Alpaca fiber has the largest variety of colors with 17 different natural colors, from white to black, shades of gray and brown.
Alpacas are sheared once per year, producing and an average of 3 kg (6 lb) of fiber per animal. As the llama, 80% of alpaca population is in Peru.
How to differentiate between llama and alpaca?
Alpaca "suri" is easily recognizable by its very long and slightly curly hair (sometimes almost to the ground) looking for "rasta", but can be a bit difficult to make the difference between the llama and the huacaya alpaca, especially when young, but some details prevent mistakes:
Llama has long and slightly curved ears, known as banana shaped, his head is "shaved", slightly protruding tail and looks haughty.
Huacaya alpaca is smaller and looks like a teddy bear, with small ears, a short, friendly and smiling face, a very dense wool throughout the body and forming a "helmet" on the head.
Alpaca wool is almost always of one color, can be white, brown, beige, gray. etc.
Vicugna Vicugna Molina
It is the smallest of South American camelids with less than 90 cm (3 ft) at the withers, with a maximum weight of 40 kg (90 lb).
Vicuña is easily recognizable, much more delicate and graceful than its cousins, is tawny brown, whereas the hair on the throat and chest is white and quite long.
Elegant animal, very agile in their movements, is wild environment but will approach people easily a few meters, the vicuña more like a gazelle or fawn than a llama, can run at up to 40 km / h (25 mph) and jumping up to 2 meters (7 ft).
Wild species living in semi-arid areas of the Andes between 3,500 and 5,800 m (11,500 to 19,000 ft), mainly in Peru (90% of entery population), the vicuña is one of the symbols of the Peruvian state appearing in the coat of arms of the national flag.
Vicuñas live in family-based groups made up of a male, five to 15 females, and their young. Some live in bachelor groups.
The gestation period is of 11 months and fawn becomes independent at about 12 months old. Young males should then find their future partners, generating sometimes strong macho confrontations.
It is an annual ceremony that originated in Inca times and still practice today for shearing of vicuñas.
Multitudes of people form an immense human chain to herd vicuñas into a corral previously built for the occasion. Inside the corral the vicuñas able to be shearing are selected, which means they have a long enough fiber, shared only every once 2 years, each animal producing between 200 and 300 grams (7 to 10 oz) of wool (3 to 4 kg / 6 to 8 lb for alpaca).
Its fiber is very short, but has incredible warmth because it allows these animals to withstand extreme temperatures from 4,000 m to nearly 6,000 m (13,000 to 20,000 ft) a.s.l.
The finest wool in the world
Measuring 12 micrometers in diameter, is the finest fiber. In comparison, cashmere has 17 micrometers, alpaca 24 and sheep 50.
This fineness and great rarity, make it the most expensive wool of the world, sold US$500 per kg freshly shorn. Almost all production is for export in rich countries and a vicuña garment reaches high prices. A vicuña wool scarf costs US$500 (price in Peru) and a topcoat can cost over US$30,000.
For many centuries, the vicuña has been an animal highly appreciated of the Andean peoples and its wool was generally reserved for the nobility. Hunted in excess since colonial times, the vicuña was in endangered. Its numbers was estimated at 2 million at the arrival of the Spaniards, only 6,000 in 1965.
In 1975, the vicuña was incorporated into the protection program of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) which prohibited any international trade of vicuña wool.
From that moment, Peru established reserves in several regions of the country, the 2 most important are Pampa Galeras in the province of Lucanas (Ayacucho) between Nazca and Cusco (near Puquio) and Salinas y Aguada Blanca north of Arequipa direction Puno.
The vicuña is owned by the Peruvian state who have entrusted its protection to local indigenous communities, the only authorized for shearing and selling its fiber to the companies responsible for processing and marketing under control of the CONACS (National Council for South American Camelids ).
Today, their numbers grew to nearly 200,000 in Peru.
Lama Quanicoe Muller
Guanaco is a wild animal, much larger (1.10 m / 3 ft 3 in - 120 kg / 265 lb) than vicuña, closest to the llama, as it would be its ancestor. Its fur is dense, short, reddish brown with grey faces and small straight ears.
Its wool is of very good quality, (15 micrometers) valued second only to that of the vicuña (12 micrometers) and comparable to the best cashmere.
The guanaco lives from 0 to 4.000 m (13,000 ft) a.s.l., mainly in Chile and Argentina, few in Peru.