The natural habitat of South American camelids is the altiplano, the
high Andean plateau extending through the countries of Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile.
Camelids can thrive on the tough vegetation found in this region and are adapted to the
high altitude (over 4 kilometres above sea level) and extremes of temperature.
South American camelids are distant cousins of the Afro-Asian camels,
the Bactrian (two-humped camel) and the dromedary (one-humped camel). There are four
species which despite differences in size are basically very similar and can interbreed,
although crosses between the wild and domestic species are rare in nature. The
pacovicuña, an alpaca and vicuña hybrid, is of interest as a fine fibre producing
animal. The guanaco and vicuña are now relatively rare wild species but are probably the
ancestors of the domesticated llama and alpaca. Alpacas and llamas may have been
domesticated as early as 4000 BC (see Evolution and Origin of the
Domestic Camelids by Jane C. Wheeler).
Llama (Lama glama) traditionally used as a pack animal.
Similar to cashmere goats in having a double-coat, the undercoat consists of fine fibres
and this is covered by an outercoat of coarse guard hairs. Modern dehairing processes can
separate the finer fibres from the coarse hair. Most of the worlds llama population
is to be found in Bolivia (about 2.5 million animals with almost one million used for
fibre production). There are two distinct breeds; the kcara (light fleece) most commonly
used as a beast of burden and the chaku (heavy fleece) used as the main source of llama
fibre for textiles. While modern transportation has reduced the importance of the llama as
a beast of burden emphasis is now being placed on using this animal as a source of fibre
Alpaca (Lama pacos) are single coated like sheep and angora
goats. Alpacas have over many centuries been selectively bred for fineness of fibre,
losing both their outer coat and the ability to shed in the process. There are two
varieties; the suri characterised by long, straight hair and the huacaya, which has
shorter curly hair. Peru has over 80% of the worlds alpaca population (about three
million animals). Alpaca fibre comes in a range of natural colours from white through to
black and including fawns, browns and greys. The huarizo, obtained by crossing a male
llama with a female alpaca, produces a coarser and therefore less valuable fibre than
Vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) produce the finest and softest
underhair. The smallest of the camelids these timid animals were hunted almost to
extinction for their fibre. It has been estimated that there were around two million
vicuña in Inca times but in Peru only about 5,000 had survived by the mid 1960s.
Thankfully due to conservation efforts the numbers of vicuña in Peru is now around
150,000 animals. In some areas the vicuña is once more being rounded up, shorn and
released unharmed by the local campesinos. This form of commercialisation discourages
poaching since a shorn vicuña has little commercial value.
Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) have an undercoat which is finer than
alpaca but most of the coat is made up of coarse guard hair. The guanaco has the broadest
distribution of the four species of South American camelids ranging from Northern Peru all
the way down to the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego in Southern Chile.
In addition to fibre both the llama and alpaca are used as a source of
meat in South America and their dung is dried for fuel.
The EU-funded project SUPREME (SUstainable Production of natural
REsources and Management of Ecosystems) was set up in 1996 to address the potential of
South American camelid breeding in the Andean region. It sought to assist in developing
the production chain of fibre and meat from the domesticated camelids (llama & alpaca)
on a sustainable basis. There are sound ecological reasons for increasing the number of
camelids at the expense of animals introduced from Europe. Camelids have soft pads on the
bottom of their feet and therefore cause significantly less damage to the fragile soil
structure found on the altiplano than do sheep and cattle. They have a hard pallet instead
of teeth on their upper front jaw giving them the unique ability of tearing grass for
eating leaving the roots of the plants intact. In addition, camelids are more efficient in
extracting protein and energy from poor quality vegetation than are ruminants and their
water requirement is less. Camelids are easier to look after than sheep because they do
not have to be guarded against predators nor do they require supplementary feeding.
Scientists from the UK (BTTG), Italy, Germany, France, Bolivia, Peru,
Argentina, Chile and Ecuador were involved in the project. Members of the project may be
seen on the Arequipa page of this Web site. You can also visit the SUPREME Web site for
more information and read an on-line summary of
the final report. These pages are dedicated to the new friends that I made as a result
of the SUPREME project and to the indigenous peoples of South America.
My contribution to SUPREME
Carried out organoleptic testing in Bolivia and Peru using an 'electronic nose' to provide
an objective method for the evaluation of meat quality. Taking into account the low
nutritional level of the human diet presently available in the Altiplano, Camelid meat
could be used to tackle malnutrition problems in the Andean region, owing to its low fat
and high protein content. I also developed a Technical Protocol for applying DNA
speciation techniques to Camelid fibre and meat identification that can be used in
authenticity and quality control testing.
Hamlyn, P.F. (1998). Development of DNA primer sequences for the differentiation of
camelid fibre/meat from other speciality fibres/meats. Seminario Internacional De
Camélidos Sudamericanos Domésticos, Córdoba, Argentina.
Hamlyn, P.F., Nelson, G., Asghar N. & McCarthy, B.J. (1999). Identification of
speciality animal fibres using DNA profiling. 3rd European Symposium on South American
Camelids and SUPREME European Seminar, Göttingen, Germany.
Neely, K., Taylor, C., Prosser, O. & Hamlyn, P.F. (2001). Assessment of cooked alpaca
and llama meats from the statistical analysis of data collected using an 'electronic
nose'. Meat Science, 58, 53-58.