The Alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated breed of South American camel-like ungulates, derived from the wild vicuña. It resembles a sheep in appearance, but is larger and has a long erect neck.Alpacas are kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3500 to 5000 meters above sea-level, throughout the year. Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas and unlike them are not used as beasts of burden but are valued only for their fiber (wool), used for making blankets and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, blankets, socks and coats in other parts of the world. The fiber comes in more than 22 natural colours.
In the textile industry, “alpaca” primarily refers to the hair of Peruvian alpaca, but more broadly it refers to a style of fabric originally made from alpaca hair but now often made from similar fibers, such as mohair, Icelandic sheep wool, or even high-quality English wool. In trade, distinctions are made between alpacas and the several styles of mohair and lustre. However, as far as the general purchaser is concerned, little-or-no distinction is made.
Alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years. There are no wild alpacas; they were bred down in domesticated form from the vicuña, which is also native to South America. They are closely related to llamas, which are descended from the guanaco. These four species of animals are collectively called camelids.
Of the four, the alpaca and the vicuña are the most valuable fiber-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the quality and quantity of its fiber, and the vicuña because of the softness, fineness and quality of its coat. Alpacas cannot carry pack loads like their llama cousins; they were bred exclusively for their fiber and meat.
Alpacas and llamas can (and do) successfully cross-breed. The resulting offspring are called huarizo, and have little “real purpose,” but often have gentle temperaments and are suitable for pets.
Alpaca fleece is a luxurious fibre, similar to sheep’s wool in some respects, but lighter in weight, silkier to the touch, warmer, not prickly and bears no lanolin, making it nearly hypoallergenic. A big trade of alpaca fleece exists in the countries where alpacas live, from very simple and not so expensive garments made by the aboriginal communities, to sophisticated, industrially made and expensive products.
Traditionally, alpaca meat has been eaten fresh, fried or in stews, by Andean inhabitants. There is a resurgent interest in alpaca meat in countries like Peru, where it is relatively easy to find it at upscale restaurants however, the animals are too expensive in South Africa to make this an option.
Alpacas are social herd animals and should always be kept with others of their kind, or at the very least with other herd animals. They are gentle, elegant, inquisitive, intelligent and observant. As they are a prey animal, they are cautious and nervous if they feel threatened. They like having their own space and do not like an unfamiliar alpaca or human getting close, especially from behind. They warn the intruder away by making sharp, noisy inhalations, putting back their ears, twisting their heads and necks backwards toward the perceived threat, screaming, threatening to spit, and eventually may spit and kick. Due to the soft pads on their feet, the kicks are not as dangerous as those of hoofed animals.
Not all alpacas spit, but all are capable. “Spit” is somewhat euphemistic. While occasionally the projectile contains only air and a little saliva, the alpaca often bring up and project regurgitated stomach contents.
Spitting is mostly reserved for other alpacas, not for humans, but sometimes a human gets in the line of fire. If an alpaca is extremely displeased at a human, that person may well become covered in smelly, green goo.
Individuals vary, but Alpacas generally make a humming sound. Hums are often comfort noises, letting the other alpacas know they are present and content. However, humming can take on many inflections and meanings, from a high-pitched, almost desperate, squealing, “MMMM!” or frantic question, “mmMMM!” when a mother is separated from her offspring (called a “cria,”) to a questioning “Mmm?” when they are curious.
A male in the act of mating, or hoping for a chance to mate, “orgles.” This orgling helps to put the female in the mood, and it is believed to also help her to ovulate after mating.
Females have no estrus cycle — they are “induced ovulators,” which means that the act of mating and the presence of semen causes them to ovulate. Occasionally, females conceive after just one breeding (which can last anywhere from 5 minutes to well over an hour; the males are “dribble ejaculators,”) but occasionally do have troubles conceiving. Mating is in the sitting position.
A male is usually ready to mate for the first time at a year of age, but a female alpaca is not fully mature (physically and mentally) until she reaches approximately 16-18 months, and it is not advisable to breed a female earlier.
Pregnancies last 11 to 11.5 months and the young are called crias. After a female gives birth, she is generally receptive to breeding again after approximately 15 days. Crias may be weaned through human intervention at approximately 6 months and 60 pounds. However, many breeders prefer to allow the female to decide when to wean her offspring.
It is believed that alpacas generally live for more than 20 years.