Domesticated llama and alpaca species are raised commercially
The alpaca is similar in appearance to the llama but of smaller stature, with longer hair and a shorter neck. Domesticated for thousands of years, the hair of the alpaca is prized for its warmth and softness. Alpacas are accustomed to inhabiting marshy grassland regions between 11,000 and 16,000 feet and are a common sight in the Andean landscape, often captured on film by visitors on Peru tours. Almost 90% of the world’s alpaca population, some three to four million animals, is raised in Peru, with 10% in Bolivia and 2% elsewhere.
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It is far more likely that visitors who travel to Peru in the Andean regions will see huacaya alpacas than suris. Of the two varieties of alpacas, the huacaya is far more common, comprising ninety to ninety-five percent of the world’s total alpaca population. The two breeds may be distinguished by their coats. Without crimp, the prized hair of the suri hangs straight down from its body and feels like mohair. The huacaya’s coat appears fluffy and fuller. Most suri alpacas are white and are sheared less often than huacayas. Huacaya alpacas may be seen on Peru tours in almost two dozen hues, including white, brown, gray, black, reddish brown and multi-colored.
Alpacas congregate in small herds led by a male and tended by herders. Each herder’s alpacas can be distinguished by the piece of cloth tied to the animals’ ears. Instead of defecating in the same area where they graze, alpacas use a separate, common area. Like the vicuna, the alpaca communicates by making a variety of sounds and has superior hearing and vision.
Alpacas are big business worldwide. Most of the alpaca’s value is in its fleece, the narrower the strand of fleece, the softer and more expensive the fiber. Most alpaca goods are purchased in the United States. Lucky travelers on Peru tours will have a far wider selection of alpaca garments from which to choose and much better prices than at home.
Domesticated alpacas are exported both for pets and breeding, commercial-quality alpacas fetching a five-digit price. It was only in the last decade that Peru eased restrictions on the export of live animals. Alpacas are sheared every other year, up to five times during an animal’s life and slaughtered for meat at between ages ten and fourteen. For a time, Peruvian law decreed that alpacas could only be sheared, not slaughtered. Trade in alpaca meat resumed in 1995. Low fat and high protein, alpaca was once a popular meat in the Andean diet, though today most Peruvians prefer alpaca in a dried, salted form. Though alpacas are not endangered, population declines can lead to inbreeding which in turn reduces the quality of the fleece.