In the US the llama is well known. It has been in North America since the late 1800’s when they were brought to be shown in Zoo exhibits. However, the llama’s less famous cousin, the alpaca, was first imported to the US in 1984. It is easy to confuse them as they look very similar.
Alpacas were cherished by the Inca. Alpaca wool was made into fine cashmere-like fleece clothing reserved for Incan royalty. However, with the arrival of the Spanish and indigenous subjection under their rule, alpacas were nearly wiped out but survived as they are hardy animals that can thrive in high altitudes. The iron fist of the Spanish diminished the higher you went up the mountains. People, communities, and alpacas survived and passed down their knowledge and craft.
As in the olden days the value of alpaca fleece has had a modern resurgence. For example, one of the alpacas’ cousins, the Vicuna, produces the world’s most expensive and one of its softest natural fibers. It can sell for over $200 a pound raw and $1500 to $3000 a yard as fabric on the world market. Interestingly, the Vicunas are wild, and they can only be sheered every two years. There are efforts to try and raise or heard them on the way, but it has become clear why its an expensive fabric. In a year, about 3 tons of vicuna fiber is exported from Peru.
In a year, about 4,000 tons of alpaca fiber is exported from Peru. Yet in a year, about 380,000 tons of sheep wool is exported from Australia.
An alpaca and a sheep are two very different animals and require different habitats to survive and commercially important, to produce fine wool.
The local economy is also different. In Peru, indigenous communities who have taken care of these animals for millennia are receiving the fruits of their labor. It is definitely not a utopia but being able to receive profits for their work is essential in understanding the value of alpaca wool and wear.
There are continuing struggles, however. Climate change has had an adverse effect on alpaca herds as their feeding wild grass fields no longer grow the same green they once used to. There are efforts to help mitigate the damage being done.
Link to National Geographic:
The high-altitude quest to save alpacas