Alpacas are a South American relative of the camel. There are no wild alpacas; they were bred down in domesticated form from the vicuna, which is also native to South America. Unlike their close relative the llama, which were primarily used as pack animals in South America, alpacas were raised for their cashmere-like fibre, once reserved for Incan royalty. They have been domesticated for over 5,000 years. Alpacas and llamas are native to the Andean Mountain Range of South America are primarily found in Bolivia, Chile and Peru. There are two types of alpaca – Huacaya (with dense, crimpy sheep-like fibre) and Suri (with silky dreadlocks). Alpacas come in more than 22 natural colours, from a true blue-black through browns and fawns to white, and there are silver greys and rose greys as well.
Females can be bred from around 14 to 18 months. Males begin breeding between two and three years of age. In courtship, the male will chase his partner, and if she is not pregnant, she will eventually allow herself to be mated. The males characteristically warble during active coitus, which can last up to an hour. Alpacas do not come into heat, they are induced ovulators and can be bred year-round. Ovulation occurs up to 26 hours after the mating. The female alpaca can produce one cria (baby) per year. Two weeks later, the female is ready to be bred again. The gestation period is approximately 11 months. Alpacas are devoted and protective mothers. The cria will suckle from its mother until weaning at about five or six months. They seldom ever have twins.
Alpacas are social herd animals and should always be kept with others of their kind, or with other herd animals. They are gentle, elegant, inquisitive, intelligent and observant, cautious and will be nervous if feeling threatened. They like their own space and don’t appreciate an unfamiliar alpaca (or human) getting too close, especially from behind. Alpacas don’t like their heads being touched, preferring their backs and necks as contact areas. Alpaca sound is basically an “mmm” sound signifying contentment, changing to a high-pitched whinny when danger is present, or frantic question “mmMMM!” when a mother is separated from her offspring to a questioning “Mmm?” when they are curious.
Alpacas are ruminants. They have a three-compartmented stomach and need no special diet. Alpacas are grazers and like cattle, they chew their cud. They have a split upper lip, which prevents them from damaging the vegetation’s roots. They require good quality hay (primarily grasses). To help alpacas control their internal parasites they have a communal dung pile, which they do not graze.