Alpaca Origins & History
Alpacas originate from South America and are bred from the wild Vicuna, which is now a rare and protected species. Alpacas are in the camelid family which Includes Llamas and their wild version the Guanaco it also includes the Asian camel. All of this group of animals originally evolved in North America and have spread to their many diverse locations throughout the world although there are now no wild Camelid relatives in North America.
The Importance of Alpacas
Alpacas have been domesticated for around 6000-7000 years and have played an important role in the survival and economy of the Andean people. The value of alpaca was recognised as early as the 14th Century, when the Incas (South American Indians) ruled much of South America. They used Alpacas and Llamas for food, fuel, clothing, transportation and religious ceremony. They were considered so important to the survival of the indigenous people that they were considered property of the government and were rigidly controlled. Alpacas thrived under this rule – totaling a staggering 50 million animals. It was at this time that the quality of alpaca fiber and alpaca numbers was at its peak.
The Decline of Alpacas
The Spanish invaded South America in 1532 and introduced their own livestock (sheep, goats and cattle) and Alpacas were pushed further up the Altiplano towards the Andes. The Spanish also bought diseases with them that affected the native Indian population so the Alpaca keepers themselves decreased in number. The Spanish invaders did not realise that the Alpaca was one of the real Incan treasures. Only Incan royalty was allowed to wear Alpaca and Alpaca textiles were used as currency by the Incas. At this time ninety percent of the Alpaca population died out. Organised breeding programs were lost and llamas and alpaca were left to interbreed. It has been suggested that this mixed breeding practice transformed the alpaca of the Inca period from a single-coated animal, to the two-coated animal of today. This is supported by fossil evidence that show skin samples of 1000-year-old mummified remains of alpaca to have finer fiber with more uniformity than our modern day alpaca. Breeding programs of today are aimed at improving the quality of alpaca to back to where it was some 300 years ago.
Exportation of Alpacas
There were a number of attempts to export alpacas out of South America following the Spanish Invasion. These attempts were largely unsuccessful, with the majority of animals dying before they reached their country of destination. It wasn’t until Sir Titus Salt (an English wool merchant) began importing alpaca fiber into England in 1836 that world interest started to grow. With large amounts of fiber and alpacas leaving South America, numbers began to decline. In 1843 (in an attempt to safeguard their industry) Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina placed a ban on all live exportation of alpaca and unprocessed alpaca fiber. Chile, however, did not support this ban until 1930. This allowed Charles Ledger, in 1847, to import Chilean alpacas into Australia. Some of these animals were shipped to New Zealand and farmed in Canterbury for several years. However neither country was successful at getting the alpaca industry up and running at this time, with all of the imported animals eventually dying. By 1970, due to poaching and poor breeding programs, the South American alpaca was still declining. Realising the impact this was having on its economy, the Peruvian government stepped in, and gave land and breeding rights back to the pastoralists. With the success of the new breeding programs, alpaca herds started to flourish. By the 1980s South America was ready to legalise the exportation of Alpacas. The first Alpacas were imported in to the UK in 1993.