Domesticated llama and alpaca species are raised commercially
Pronounced gwah-NAH-ko, the guanaco is one of four camelid species native to South America. At adulthood, it stands three to four feet at the shoulder, and almost six feet to the top of its ears, weighing between 175 and 275 pounds. Smaller than the domesticated llama, the guanaco is one of the largest of South America’s wild animal species. Its pointed ears, more slender form and straighter hair distinguish the species from the llama at a distance. Guanacos are light to dark brown in color with a white belly and gray face. Scientists are still debating how the identified guanaco subspecies should be classified.
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After the Spanish invasion of guanaco habitat centuries ago, the specie’s population shrank from millions to thousands. Most of the continent’s remaining guanacos are found in the southerly regions, making them a much more common sight during travel to Patagonia than Peru Tours. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), of South America’s remaining 400,000 and 600,000 guanacos, almost all are found in Argentina with about 66,000 in Chile. Visitors to Torres del Paine National Park during their Chile tours and Tierra del Fuego National Park during travel to Argentina can expect to see many guanacos.
Spotting a herd of guanacos is a very special experience for visitors on Peru tours since it is believed that only 3,500 to 5,000 still inhabit the country. Though few guanacos are left in Bolivia and Paraguay, efforts are underway to re-populate the species in the Chaco ecosystem that borders the three countries. Guanacos once also inhabited Brazil and Uruguay.
Inhabiting puna, steppe, grasslands and shrub lands as well as Andean forests, guanacos can survive at elevations as high as 15,000 feet in more northerly countries and as low as sea level in Patagonia. Guanacos can withstand long periods of drought, surviving by deriving moisture from plants they eat, licking leaves, and by tolerating saltier water than most land species. Guanacos are found in areas that have been converted to ranchland and so must share their territory and food supply with the millions of sheep raised in Patagonia and with cattle elsewhere. Guanacos get the leftovers, though farmers who must deal with the wild species inhabiting their fields would beg to differ. Some herds of guanacos migrate to warmer wetter climes. In many places, the guanaco also shares its habitat with pumas, its predator. Once an important source of protein for indigenous populations, guanacos today may only be slaughtered with government permission. The abundance of guanacos today makes the trade of guanaco fiber legal if the exporting country can certify that the source of the fiber is sustainable.
Except for winter when herds mix, guanaco groups consisting of one male and as many as two dozen females and their young, inhabit a territory of about 100 square miles. Young guanacos get kicked out of the herd after about a year and join up with others in the same boat, forming single gender groups. Older males travel solo. When guanacos mate and give birth depends on where the live. Gestation is about eleven months.
Though many reserves have been created in South America to protect the dwindling guanaco populations, guanacos will likely continue to face extinction in countries where their numbers are low since poaching is still a problem. Mortality of guanacos is also high because so few newborns survive to adulthood.