Related to the vicuña, llama and guanaco the alpaca is a rare and precious animal thought to be a cross between llamas and vicuñas some 6000 years ago. Alpacas have had a turbulent history. Treasured by the ancient Inca civilisation, their fine fleeces were reserved for Incan royalty. Together with their close relatives, the llamas, alpacas provided clothing, food, fuel and, no doubt, companionship as domesticated animals high in the altiplano of Peru, Chile and Bolivia.
A thousand years before the Roman Empire, a thriving economy existed, based on selective breeding and the production of alpacas that are thought to have had even better fleeces than the finest and most uniform alpacas today. Alpacas were close to annihilation after the Spanish conquest of the Incas. The alpaca, prized for almost 5000 years as a source of high quality fibre, was seen by the Spaniards as a competitor for grazing lands available to their sheep. The alpaca therefore became a source of meat and was slaughtered almost to the point of extinction.
The surviving Incans were driven into the highest parts of the inhospitable Andes mountains, taking their most prized alpacas with them into exile. The alpaca population survived due to their great importance to the Indian people, and their ability to tolerate extraordinarily harsh climatic conditions.
It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that the beauty and resilience of alpaca fleece was ‘rediscovered’ and re-awoke the world’s interest. Sir Titus Salt of London “discovered” the remarkable fibre of the alpaca and began promoting its use in the finest textile mills and fashion houses of Europe. In the Southern Hemisphere Charles Ledger was the first to import alpacas into Australia in 1858. None of the descendents of these alpacas are thought to have survived to the present day.
Today, alpaca farming is still concentrated in the Altiplano. Alpacas not only battle a harsh climate – burning sun by day, freezing conditions at night – but also receive few of the benefits of modern animal husbandry. In their homeland of South America, Peru has approximately 2.5 million, Bolivia around 50,000 and there are only some 500,000 in Chile and Argentina combined.
In 1984, the United States and Canada imported their first alpacas, followed by Australia and New Zealand in 1989. These countries, with their more temperate climates and more sophisticated animal husbandry and breeding techniques, have proven beneficial for the species.