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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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).