Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cameloids of South America: Llamas, Alpacas, Vicunas, Guanacos

Before our trip to Peru I knew very little about alpacas and llamas. They were these cute-looking animals living in South America farmed for their wool. I’m pretty sure I was not even able to tell the difference between the two (except for knowing that sweaters made from alpaca’s wool are more expensive than the ones made from llama’s).

In Peru, I finally got to see a llama and an alpaca side by side, and now I know that they are quite different. It’s not possible to tell them apart solely by judging their color, as they both can be white, cream, brown, or even grey or black. However, the Llama is much larger than the Alpaca, and it has also a longer, more slender neck. Of the two, the Alpaca usually has more consistent coloring (which, I guess, is the reason why its fiber is considered to be of better quality). Both are domesticated species, but only llamas have been used as pack and meat animals, whereas alpacas were bred specifically for their fiber.

I was surprised to learn that the Llama and the Alpaca are close relatives of camels, but now that I look again at the pictures of these animals I can see the resemblance. Take a look at the photos posted below, and see if you can too.

As you can see, the Peruvians are well aware of the tourists’ interest in those animals, and are happy to pose with them for the pictures. Of course, they expect you to pay for these photos¬—a concept I’m not comfortable with.

In Peru, it’s also possible to see the Guanaco and the Vicuña, two other cameloids closely related to the Llama and the Alpaca. We didn’t see any guanacos during our trip¬—likely because they’re rare and endangered—but we saw vicuñas. The latter used to be endangered too, but thanks to conservation efforts aren’t anymore.

Vicuñas live at an altitude of 3,200 to 4,800 meters, on the grassy plains of the Andes, where they feed. On our way to and from Colca Canyon we passed several groups of vicuñas and I was hoping we would stop next to one of those groups but, sadly, we didn’t. I took a few photos through our bus window, but they just didn’t come out well at all. It’s a pity, as the Vicuña is the national animal of Peru--represented on the Peruvian coat of arms—and I’d have loved to have a photo of it, taken by me, in Peru. Maybe next time.

Llamas in Machu Picchu, posing for tourists.

An alpaca.