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"Dancers of the Soil"
by Dr Julio Sumar

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"Dancers of the Soil, by Dr Julio Sumar"



The most environmentally gentle ruminant livestock in the World.

Alpacas(Lama pacos) belong to a group of animals called South American Camelids (SAC’s), Llamoids or New World Camelids, which also includes the Llama (Lama glama), the Vicuña (Lama vicugna) and the Guanaco (Lama guanicoe). The animals are indigenous to the Andean region of South America, traditionally have been an important source of animal fibre, and also as a source of meat that is of secondary importance. Good quality alpaca fibre demands a high price on the world market, making alpaca production an important agricultural enterprise in Peru and Bolivia. The altiplano region in Southern Peru is the primary alpaca producing area of the country, containing about 50% of Peru’s 3.5 million alpacas.

To the Incas, the South American Camelids were almost mystical creatures that were vital to the functioning and life of their Empire. The alpaca and the llama were the Inca’s only large domesticated livestock, but even the wild vicuña and guanaco were rounded up and shorn in regular rotations. These animals provided clothing, meat, hides and pelts, work (the llama as a beast of burden), capital reserve, fuel and fertilizer. Llamas carried the trade of the Incas on their backs, padding silently the length and breadth of the Empire, which at is zenith stretched 4.000 kilometres… as far as the Roman Empire reached at its greatest point in history (Britain to Persia).

Because these animals lived at altitudes above those where people could survive, the Incas revered them. To the Incas, who called themselves “Children of the Sun”, the animals were specially blessed by heaven because they lived closest to God, the Sun.

However, the Spaniards who conquered the Incas in the 1500s had no scruples. They were intent on smashing the Empire, seizing the fabulous gold, and converting the Indians to Christianity. The Incas’ strange-looking animals were prime targets for destruction. Thousands were killed during the civil war that followed the conquest. The Indians were forced to sell or slaughter their alpacas and llamas and to replace them with Castillian sheep brought over from Spain.

Only the ability to survive at high altitudes saved the SAC’s from probable extinction. The huge Andean areas above about 4.500 metres elevation were inhospitable to both sheep and Spaniards, and became the last refuge for the llamas and alpacas.

In Incan times, there were 20 million alpacas and llamas in the Andes. Today there are about 5 million in the whole world. Almost all are in Peru, Chile and Bolivia, and because they still are considered low ranking animals they get little government attention. Moreover, for much of the last 150 years these countries prohibited export of any fertile alpacas or llamas. This had provided these countries with a monopoly, but it has withheld the animals from international scientific scrutiny.

Ultimately, this history of hostility and neglect has meant that these animals have never reached their inherent potential, much less approached the global status of their fellow ruminants… sheep, cattle and goats.

It is important that the world be quickly awakened to the promise of the South American Camelids or Llamoids. The few scientists who know these useful animals are increasingly intrigued by their unique qualities. From this information, it is increasingly clear that the past neglect of these isolated animals has been due to apathy, misinformation and even cultural bias. Indeed, the vision that is emerging is of two “Super species” (the alpaca and the llama), with fascinating qualities and global utility.

Some of these outstanding qualities are the following:


The Puna is an ecosystem highly susceptible to degradation as a result of the extreme climate which is characterized by sparse vegetation and very low temperatures most of the year. The special anatomical features of the extremities of the SAC’s allow them to walk firm footed across any type of terrain. The SAC’s foot has digits and the planar surface is covered with a soft cornified layer. On the bulb epithelium lies a fatty fibroelastic pad, similar to the digital cushion of the horse. The nail or claw is small and carries no weight.

The broad, elastic pads prevent them from causing damage to the plants and soil. This is in contract to the sharp-edged hooves and claws of domestic animals, such as sheep, goats, cattle and horses which tear up the soils surface and destroy the sparse turf, especially during periods of drought. Their soft padded feet (like dogs) do not, for example, leave permanent trail scars across the hillsides, as do sheep, cattle and horses.

The distinctive lower incisors of the SAC’s enable it to eat small plants, which are close or lie directly on the ground, without tearing out or loosening the forage plants. (When the Incas first saw sheep they named them “fire-mouth” because of the way they tore out the vulnerable vegetation cover of the high Andes). Increase utilization of fragile areas by the SACs will bring about a decrease in the degradation of the ecosystem, thus avoiding large-scale and erosion of the topsoil. The fine, thick hair is an important protection against heat gain from the intense solar radiation at high altitudes in a treeless environment. It also serves as protection against below zero temperatures during almost all nights of the year.

This animals’ resistance to cold is remarkable, as we said before. For example, temperatures of 15°C are no problem, and in snowstorms they happily hunker down and often get covered up until only their heads are showing.


The herd instinct is so strong that no matter how far each animal roams during the day, it rejoins its flock at a fixed site at night. The flocks are so self-sufficient that shepherds need visit only occasionally.

Female alpacas and llamas almost always give birth between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., providing the newborn with enough time to strengthen itself for a possibly subfreezing night. (The mystery is that they do it on Australian and New Zealand farms where there is no life threatening cold).

This is also in contrast with other domestic ungulates, among which the majority of births occur during the dark hours. One of the most important causes of high neonatal mortality rate of lambs in Peru is pneumonia, caused by below zero temperatures very late in the night and early in the morning.


South American Camelids are innately hardy. In their native habitat they are constantly exposed to cold, heat, damp, hunger and thirst. They usually drink only during the dry season. And once a week during the rainy season, when water is available.

New World Camelids have a much higher affinity for oxygen than does the blood of other animals. They favour the uptake of oxygen at the low atmospheric pressures of high altitudes.

Despite the 11 month gestation period, alpacas still produce a cria a year because the female’s uterus contracts to normal size with near miraculous speed.

It is worth noting that under uncertain climatic conditions, such as the drought, the alpaca and llama have shown better adaptive abilities that other domestic species. During the drought of 1956 – 1957, approximately 80% of the cattle and horses died, whereas 40% of the sheep and only 25% of the camelid population perished. If this is representative of other areas of high-Andean ecology, it suggests that the alpaca and llama constitute the most reliable nutritional and economic resources available to the peasants who inhabit this zone.


A review of existing literature on the nutrition of the alpaca reveals that these SAC’s are better adapted to the harsh environments of the Andean region than so-called advanced ruminants. SAC’s differ from other ruminants in stomach morphology an digestion, and also they eat selectively. They seem more efficient in digesting coarse forages. Their native diet is dry, coarse, wiry grasses on which cattle and sheep waste away.

Protein and energy requirements of SAC’s are lower than those of other domestic ruminants. Also, they thrive on sites where phosphorous, copper and zinc are so severely lacking that the cattle suffer debilitating diseases and sheep are affected by a crippling disease associated with low copper content in the soil. Available data indicate that the stocking ratios should be 1:1 for alpaca: sheep. Thus one alpaca of 65 kg will be equal to a sheep of 40 kg. From the digestive point of view, alpacas are able to adapt to extreme conditions better than most other large herbivores.

“Bloat” is defined as tympany of the first stomach compartment. Bloat in other ruminant species is usually classified as primary (frothy) or secondary (free-gas). Alpacas or llamas, grazing in the natural pastures of the Andean region never showed frothy bloat. Also, these animals have been observed to graze on alfalfa or clover pastures without bloating, and this would normally produce bloat in conventional ruminants. Cases of free-gas bloat do occur, albeit infrequently, probably due to toxic plants.


An alpaca produces as much fibre (wool) as a sheep on average, but kilo for kilo it sells for seven times the price of sheep wool. Alpaca is one of the finest commercial fibres in the world… only one-fourth the diameter of human hair and one-half that of cashmere.

Alpaca meat is like lamb or venison, but is not strong-smelling. It has low fat and cholesterol content and the carcass yields is very high (56%)


Although disease resistance is not an adaptive characteristic to high and semi-desert environments, we will discuss this advantage.

Few clinically important viral disease have been reported. Researchers over the world have reported a few positive serologic test results, indicating exposure to viruses, but no evidence of clinical disease has been presented. Foot and Mouth Disease has been reported as an experimentally induced disease in SAC’s with very slight symptoms.

The species are relatively resistant to infection by the virus. They could be involved in transmission of the virus (for a very short period, after being artificially infected), rather than a clinical disease presentation.

One of the major economic problems in the Peruvian sheep industry is the so called “Sheep Pulmonary Adenomatosis” (or ovine pulmonary carcinoma). Alpacas or llamas are immune to this disease. This disease is caused by a virus that produces an ultimately fatal lung tumor, which was been experimentally transmitted to lambs. This chronic, progressive and ultimately fatal disease is untreatable.

Pulmonary adenomatosis in sheep frequently co-exist with ovine progressive pneumonia. Culling effected animals is, as yet, the only way to flight both diseases.

Also, SACs are resistant to footrot, by far the most common disease in sheep. It is highly contagious, particularly during the rainy season, Alpacas are animals that like to graze in the “bofedales” (Bofedales are areas with constant moisture underground, retaining a fresh green colour during the dry season). Footrot has never been reported in the alpaca and it is very rare in llamas that like to graze in drier areas.

They are resistant to copper deficiency: no case of “swayback” has been observed in camelids.

Epididymitis is a testicular inflammation found in a variety of domestic male animals, especially in sheep, and causing ram infertility and abortion in pregnant ewes. This disease is mainly caused by Brucella ovis. Not a singly case of epididymitis has been reported in alpacas, except in cases of traumatic injury to the scrotal content.

As a corollary, I want to mention that in the late 1970s, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization defined the ideal animal for the future. The animal should be, said FAO, a ruminant; it should need little water; it should be highly fertile; and it should provide people with protein and other products. The alpaca and llama fit the ideal. To find an animal of the future, people need look no further than the camelids.


Retired Principal Professor, Head of the Camelids Section and Laboratories at the High Altitude Research Station “La Raya”, IVITA, San Marcos University, Lima, Peru. Leading International Alpaca judge.

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