The alpaca is one of four members of the camelid species of South America. The other three are the llama, which is also domesticated, the vicuna and the guanaco, which exist only in the wild. The alpaca is thought to have descended from the vicuna.
Alpacas were a cherished treasure of the ancient Incan civilization and played a central role in the Incan culture that was located on the high Andean Plateau and mountains of South America. With the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, other domestic animals from Europe slowly replaced the alpaca. The number of alpaca dropped until the 1920's when a new appreciation for alpaca fiber began. By the 1980's the production of alpaca fiber had become a strategic economic resource in Peru. Alpacas were first imported to the United States in 1984 and are now being successfully raised and enjoyed throughout North America and abroad. Alpacas are still quite rare, with 200,000 to 300,000 residing in North America today.
Alpacas produce one of the world's finest and most luxurious natural fibers. During the reign of the Incas, alpaca fiber was reserved for only the Incan nobility and high-ranking officials. It is clipped once a year from the animal without causing it injury. Soft as cashmere and warmer, lighter and stronger than wool, it comes in 22 basic colors, more colors than any other fiber producing animal. Spinners and weavers around the world prize this cashmere-like fleece. There are two types of alpacas - the Huacaya and the Suri. Huacayas are fluffy with fine, crimpy fiber. The Suri's fiber curls in a spiral to form lustrous locks.
Alpacas are gentle, easy to handle, and environmentally friendly. The lifespan of the alpaca is 15 to 25 years with some in the United States living close to 30 years. Female alpacas can start breeding between 12 and 24 months of age while the males typically mature at 2 1/2 to 3 years of age. The average gestation period is usually 11 to 11 1/2 months. A baby is called a cria and normally weighs from 12 to 23 pounds. Adult alpacas are not large only about 36" tall at the withers and weigh from 130 to 190 pounds. Alpacas have padded feet with 2 toenails, which leaves the terrain undamaged as they browse for grass. Instead of upper incisor teeth, alpacas have a hard pallet. Alpacas eat grasses and chew a cud. Clean up is easy since alpacas deposit droppings in only a few places in the paddock. They require minimal fencing and can be pastured at 5 to 7 per acre. Alpacas are very herd-oriented and do better if they have the company of other alpacas. Alpacas communicate in a variety of ways, mostly with quiet noises such as humming, body postures and occasional spitting when challenged or frightened.
Alpaca owners enjoy a strong and active national organization, The Alpaca Owners Association (AOA). AOA now also oversees alpaca registration records and has a state-of the-art system to document bloodlines. Alpacas must be DNA tested in order to be registered. The majority of alpacas in the U.S. are registered. AOA is invested in educating their members and the public and enhancing the alpaca industry as a whole.
With their ease of care, income potential, and tax advantages, alpacas have become popular with families who are searching for a business opportunity that will involve the entire family. The lifestyle and opportunity of working with these animals can be a great source of joy and satisfaction.