Old Trails Alpacas

        Suri Headquarters Member

Concern Over Peru's Coarsening Alpaca Fibre

By Francis Rainford

Mounting concern is being expressed in Peru over the steady increase of coarser alpaca fibre (31 microns+) whilst the production of finer, and more commercial, qualities (20 to 26 microns) is diminishing by comparison. Further, the coarser qualities are noted for more kemp and general hairiness giving them an unattractive comfort factor for apparel.

It is estimated - since there has been no national census of Peru's alpaca population and fibre quality for some considerable time - that, of the total annual fibre production, 45% is presently coarse quality (31 microns+), 35% is Superfine (24.5 to 26 micron) and 20% is Baby Alpaca (20 to 22.5 micron).

Recently, the quality problems that have beset of one of Peru's most important textile materials were examined in a BBC Panorama documentary, entitled "The Dollar a Day Dress", which was screened on 9th March on British television and, whereas the general consensus of opinion tends to chart the overall decline of alpaca from the time of the Spanish Conquest of Peru (1531-33) , the true picture is somewhat more complicated - as indeed are the possible solutions to the recovery of the fibre quality itself.

In order to understand the position today it is necessary to trace the history of the domestication of the alpaca and, in Peru, that means studying the work that has been conducted by Dr. Jane Wheeler over the past thirty years or so.

Dr. Wheeler, an American, is the Vice President of CONOPA (Coordinadora de Investigacion y Desarrollo de Camelidos Sudamericanos) - an organization that she founded three years ago with her partners, Mr. Eugenio Artaza-Llona and Raul Rosadio, and which is dedicated to the research and testing in the area of genetic purity (patent pending) of camelids. She is also the Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in San Marcos University, Lima and was the main consultant for the aforementioned BBC Panorama documentary.

"The present status of the South American Camelids", says Dr. Wheeler, "is the product of a largely unknown past. However, in the light of the increased movement of both wild and domestic camelids in 1983, there is an urgent need to identify relict populations of genetically pure pre-Columbian llama and alpaca breeds to ensure both their preservation and the possibility of a return to high-quality fine fibre production".

Where did the alpaca come from? As far back as 1775, the origin of the alpaca was attributed to the vicuña (and the llama to the guanaco) - an opinion also supported by such eminent authorities such as Charles Ledger (1860) and Charles Darwin (1868).

Other authors have opined that the vicuña has never been domesticated and that both alpaca and llama descend from the guanaco and, more recently, that the alpaca originated as a hybrid between the llama and the guanaco.

Recent studies by Dr. Wheeler from mummified llamas and alpacas from the ninth and tenth centuries suggest that hybridization that occurred post Spanish Conquest has modified the genetic make-up of living populations which may well explain the diversity of conclusions about their ancestry and also be at the root of today's fibre fineness debate.

Setting aside these doubts about the actual origins of the alpaca, we do know, from archaeological sites located between 4,000 and 4,900 metres above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, that the earliest evidence of camelid domestication commenced some 7,500 to 12,000 years ago. This time period forms the basis of the camelid species that exist today: two wild breeds (vicuña and guanaco) and two domesticated breeds (llama and alpaca).

Because Andean civilization was nonliterate, knowledge of pre-Spanish Conquest llama and alpaca husbandry have been reconstructed from archaeological remains of llamas and alpacas of which the most important were found at El Yaral in the Moquegua valley of Southern Peru twelve years ago. The mummified remains found date back 1,000 years and give data, among other things, about the quality of fibre produced at that time. In the case of alpacas discovered, the micron fineness is up to 10 microns finer than a similar animal of today and the fibres are more even and less hairy.

The Spanish Conquest had a devastating effect on both the alpaca and llama populations where huge mortality rates were suffered and the animals displaced from the coastal and puna regions of the country to the higher elevation Altiplano region where they are found today.

The domesticated breeds that inhabit these higher elevations are alpaca, llama and their derivatives:

  • Crosses between alpacas and llamas (and vice versa) produce a hybrid known as Huarizo which produces a hair that is characteristically coarser than that of alpaca and, to the eye, the animalresembles a llama.

  • 90% of alpacas are a breed known as huacaya - which produce crimped fibres in a visually 'spongy' fleece similar to that of a Corriedale sheep.

  • 10% of alpacas are a breed known as Suri whose fleeces are characterized by long, straight fibres that fall in waves from the animal to ground level. The fibre posseses a luxuriant sheen similar to that of mohair.

Commercially, the finer huacaya and suri qualities that fall in a micron range of 20 to 26 (Baby and Superfine) command better prices in the marketplace but only account for just over an average 50% of their respective populations. By definition, the remaining coarser qualities are rapidly becoming non-commercial in a market that requires lighter and finer finished products.

Dr. Wheeler attributes the most probable cause of coarsening and hairiness in both huacaya and suri alpacas to hybridization with the coarse fibre llama breed - a practice that was most likely extensive following the chaos and destruction of the Spanish Conquest.

She comments, "The extent to which contemporary llama and alpaca populations have been affected by this process (hybridization) has not been determined, but comparison with pre-conquest animals suggests that it has been extensive and that breeds of fine fibre-producing llama and alpaca have most likely disappeared in the process".

Amidst the stark realities of lost breeds of fine alpaca hair and an increasing trend towards coarse and hairy fibre production, Peru is beginning to realize that action must be taken to recover, where possible, pure bloodlines and to breed for finer fibre qualities.

Dr. Wheeler points the way forward through genetics and her extensive studies in genetic purity and fibre characteristics form the basis of various initiatives to improve Peru's alpaca herds.

Encouragingly, both the state and private sectors are agreed on and recognize the poor state of alpaca in Peru today and that action needs to be taken to halt the decline and improve matters for the future.

Joint initiatives involving Peru's state bodies of the Ministry of Agriculture's Consejo Nacional de Camelidos Sudamericanos (CONACS), the Instituto Nacional de los Recursos Naturales (INRENA) and the Instituto Peruano de Energia Nuclear (IPEN) with the private sector's Instituto Peruano de la Alpaca y Camelidos (IPAC) and Dr Wheeler's CONOPA are working together on genetic projects to select and improve the breeds of alpaca.

The most recent project involves a five year nuclear study (maternally and paternally inherited) of the DNA of selected alpaca herds with funds of US$ One Million from the United Nations Industrial Development Organization's atomic energy offices in Europe.

Hopefully, the concerted effort required to redress Peru's alpaca quality is indeed underway and that all parties can heed CONOPA's motto: "…cuidando los rebaños de los Apus" ("…looking after the herds of the Apus" (Inca Mountain Gods).

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