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Andean Camelids

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Home >> Peru Cities >> Cusco Travel Information >> Andean Camelids



South-American cameloids are the typical fauna of the Andes which apparently have their origins in the continent's northern part. Nevertheless, their domestication was started about 6000 years ago in the Central Andes, a process that was finished with shepherding and apparition of diverse breeds of cameloids fully domesticated toward 3500 B.C. Therefore, all or almost all the pre-Inkan Cultures used cameloids for their nourishment and clothing. It was already in Inkan times when importance was granted to a systematic cameloid nursing with programs for selecting and separating flocks according to their colors and characteristics, and enregistering their production and consumption. The Spanish invasion and conquest meant a retrogression in cameloid-culture because at first the wars and later relaxation induced to indiscriminate butchering for meat supplies. Subsequently, import of foreign cattle made cameloids' displacement to high and cold zones, to the almost deserted Andean high barren plains where some other animals could not survive.

There are two species of domesticated Andean cameloids that are the "llama" and the "alpaca", and two other non-domesticated ones that are the "guanaco" and the "vicuna". However, it apparently concerns to animals descending from two original genuses: Lama and Vicugna (more over, in the old world exists the genus "Camelus" with two species: the C. Dromedarius and the C. Bactrianus). On the basis of updated information, Mario Ruiz suggests a taxonomic classification for Andean cameloids, like this:

Kingdom Animalia
Sub-Kingdom Metazoa
Phylum Chordata
Sub-Phyllum Vertebrata
Class Mammalia
Order Artiodactyla
Sub-Order Ruminantia
Infra-Order Tylopoda
Family Camelidae
Tribe Lamini
Genuses Lama
Species Lama guanicoe Muller 1776 (Guanaco)
Lama glama Linnaeus 1758 (Llama)
Vicugna vicugna Molina 1782 (Vicuna)
Vicugna pacos Linnaeus 1758 (Alpaca)

LLAMA.- It has a slender shape and can not be distinguished by its color because it could have up to half a hundred different tones. It has elongated legs, neck and face and can reach as high as 1.90 mts. (6'2") from the floor to its head. It is the most common and strongest among the Andean cameloids that is generally used as pack animal, and it can carry a weight of about 40 kg. (88 lb.) in long journeys and up to 60 kg. (133 lb.) in short ones, at a rate of 26 Km. per day over rugged mountain terrain at an elevation of 5000 meters. Its average weight when adult is 115 kg. (254 lb.) and just after born about 11.5 kg. (25 lb.). Its gestation period lasts about 348±9 days; the female reaches its sexual maturity when she is one year old, but she is mated just when 2 or 3 years old. The male is used for procreation mostly when 3 years old. Their mating and bearing epoch is between January and April, and after a month of having given birth, the female llama is ready for fecundation. These breeding characteristics are relatively common for all Andean cameloids. Llamas present traditionally two breeds, the Q'ara (bare) and the Ch'aku (woolly). They have less dense fiber (technically it is "fiber" and not "wool") than alpacas which average diameter is 28±11 micra (µ: micron: length measurement equivalent to one millionth of meter or one thousandth of millimeter).

ALPACA ("Paqocha" in Quechua).- It has a smaller and more curved silhouette than the llama, and has a classical fiber cowlick on its front. It can not be differentiated by its color because it has many tones too. It can reach a height up to 1.50 mts. (4'11") on its head, and a maximum weight of 64 kg. (141 lb.) and about 7 kg. (15 lb.) when born. Its gestation period is 343±2 days and like llamas the female can mate after turning one year old. Generally it has more and better fiber than llamas and presents two different breeds: Wakayo and Suri. The Wakayo alpaca has dense and spongy fiber covering almost all its body and leaving just the face and legs covered with short hair; while that the Suri alpaca presents lank, silky and long fiber that reaches in average a length of about 15 cm. (6'). It is sheared with knives or scissors generally once every two years, though it could also be sheared every year without taking care on the year's season; obtaining annually a fiber fleece of about 1.7 kgs. (3.75 lb.) per animal. In average, diameter of alpaca fiber is about 25±5 micra; however, this diameter is in direct relationship to age of the animal. Commercially the finest fiber that is possible to get in Peru is that named "baby alpaca wool" that is very soft and fine.

VICUNA (Wik'uña).- It is the smallest among the Andean cameloids and can reach as high as 1.30 mts. (4'3") from the floor to its head. It has a thin and slender body with agile movements. Its fur has a light brown color on the back and almost all its external part, but its chest, belly and the legs inside are whitish. The white bristle cowlick on its chest can be about 20 cm. (8") long. Just after birth it has a weight of about 5 kg. (11 lb.) and about 40 Kg. (88 lb.) when adult. The female one reach puberty when one year old but she is mated when 2 years old; her gestation period lasts 340±10 days. Its fiber is the finest among all the animal fibers with an average diameter of 12.5±1.5 micra; but it is short hardly reaching 3 cms. (1¼"). Its annual fleece can reach a maximum weight of 320 grams (11 oz.). The vicuna, having the finest fiber is very coveted and was an endangered species; today, the Peruvian government officially protects this species in special national parks. But, in reality damage to this valued animal is latent with furtive hunters that are decimating it slowly. World wide population of vicunas does not surpass 170 thousand, from which about 100 thousand are found in Peru in regions that are over 3800 mts. (12460 ft.) of altitude.

GUANACO (Wanaku),- It has a similar silhouette to that of a llama, with a light brown-reddish dense and short fur, with blackish tones on the head and whitish zones around the lips, the ears' edges and inside the legs, and something like a collar under the neck. After birth it weighs about 10 kg. (22 lb.) and a maximum of 140 kg. (310 lb.) when adult. It has a height of 1.80 mts. (5'11") from the floor to its head and it is very common in the Andes of Chile and Argentina. Economically it does not have so much importance and lives in a complete wild state.

South-American cameloids in wild state (vicunas and guanacos) live generally in families formed by a male and from 3 to even 6 female ones along with their broods. The male has the authority in the group and expels the broods before they are one year old. Subsequently the males are joined in troops of up to 20 animals, while that some male ones live all alone and wandering until establishing their family groups. The family's territory is bounded by its latrines; territory that is bravely defended by the male. As members of a group they urinate and defecate only in a communal dung heap. This social behavior has been modified among the domesticated cameloids (llamas and alpacas); however, male ones always have the authority.

Andean cameloids are also able to interbreed amongst themselves; because they have an identical number of chromosomes, the same karyotype and immunological pattern, they can generate fertile broods. From intercourse of llama and alpaca results Wari, while that from intercourse of vicuna and alpaca results Paqovicuna. Nevertheless, these crosses do not allow improvement or domestication of participating cameloids and next hybrid generations will again have the characteristics of one or the other of the parents.

Meat of Andean cameloids is eaten since immemorial times; in Inkan times it was used fresh or dried up. Fresh cameloid meat has a cholesterol level ten times lower than lamb or beef, therefore, it consumption would be healthier. Chroniclers wrote that Inkan storehouses were full of dehydrated vegetables and "charki" (the English word "jerky" derives from the Quechua name "charki") the cameloids' salty-dry meat processed during the dry season. The meat is exposed to sun rays during the day and to the cold of frosts during the night; squeezed and dried up with a lot of salt during two months with the aim of guaranteeing its conservation for a long time. Cameloids "charki" keeps fresh the meat's nutritious values that are very high. However, the Peruvian history and society have created a negative stigma about cameloids: in colonial times it was believed that they were syphilis transmitters, and today it is believed that they are inferior animals as well as their shepherds and owners. Common people believe that they are animals for "Indians" and that their meat is poor and bad.

Cameloids' milk is not generally used by Andean people due to its small amount; however, techniques could be improved in order to get a better production and use it very extensively. Besides, cameloids' skin is being processed in the last decades in many regions of Peru and Bolivia for making good quality leathers.



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