By Joseph Zaleski
Alpaca are a species of South American camelid, a two-toed herbivore similar to the guanaco, vicuña, and llama. There are two types of alpaca: the Huacaya and the Suri. The former is more common, but the Suri distinguishes itself with long, dangling fleece. Alpaca are docile and able to endure harsh environments, such as high altitudes and dramatic temperature changes. They can also be gathered in large herds to graze on pasture grass and sedge. These traits make them an ideal farm animal; but while other camelids are often bred as beasts of burden, the alpaca is known for producing one of the most highly sought-after natural fibers in the world.
Alpaca are native to the Andean highlands of South America. (Photo credit: Sofia Varela / National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest 2011)
Alpaca have been domesticated for many centuries in the high Andean Plateau of western South America. The powerful Incan empire reserved a special place in their culture for the animal, regularly using hand-spun alpaca garments to trade, clothe royalty, and bury their dead. And while post-Columbian arrivals in the New World introduced new breeds of livestock and decimated native populations, alpaca retained their place in Andean culture and play an important economic role in modern Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile.
Peru still claims the most vibrant alpaca industry in the world, with numbers around 3.5 million head, or 85 percent of alpaca worldwide, as estimated by the country’s ministry of agriculture. In 2006, Peru exported over three tons of alpaca fiber, worth over USD$20 million. Most of the alpaca-rearing in the country is done by small-scale herders, or alpaqueros. These alpaqueros generally keep herds of less than 50 animals, which provide income for an estimated 120,000 families.
In the 20th century, alpaca herding has grown more popular in North America and Europe. The International Alpaca Association, a private-sector association of camelid breeders and herders, counts members in 12 different countries including Italy, Australia, Spain, and the United States.
This expanding interest in alpaca rearing and trading is probably due to the fiber’s excellent quality. The fleece is valued for its lightness, durability, insulation, and natural diversity of shades; it’s used in both the rugged outerwear and high fashion industries. Yet the international market for alpaca can be volatile. Alpaca fiber is a value-added commodity, meaning that it cannot be sold for any substantial price without first being processed and woven. And while the supply of fiber remains relatively steady, demand for luxury clothing can fluctuate from year to year. Despite these uncertainties, alpaca herding continues to spread in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
Beyond their multipurpose fleece, alpaca are also attractive to farmers who practice integrated livestock management. For example, alpaca prefer to graze on native and perennial grasses, their droppings are concentrated and break down easily to provide high-quality natural fertilizer, and their low hoof weight keeps soil intact, which reduces soil erosion. All of these traits can help to enhance local farms and preserve fragile ecosystems.
The resilience and easy temperament of the alpaca have made them a centuries-old cultural icon in South America and a hot new commodity in other parts of the world. While the uniqueness of alpaca fiber will keep the animal in high demand, it’s also possible that this ecofriendly camelid may grow even more popular in the future as farmers become more cognizant of their environmental impacts.
Have you ever worn alpaca fiber? How does it compare to other materials? Tell us about your experiences herding alpaca.
Joseph Zaleski is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.