Llamas, Alpacas, Vicuñas, Guanacos: South America’s Camels
Yes, there are camels in South America. Not the ones you might think of, the camels of Africa and Asia, the huge ones with one or two humps on their back.
Here in South America are four kinds of camelids, all smaller, without humps, but with amazing features of carrying stuff and irreplaceable for their wool:
The llamas, the alpacas, the vicuñas and the guanacos.
Here is an overview of what differentiates the four of them:
The Llama is the domesticated form of a guanaco. It is probably the most well-known of the family.
It is also the tallest and heaviest of the south american camels.
It is mostly used for its packing abilities, as well as their fur, their wool being used for ponchos, blankets, and everything that keeps you warm.
They are very friendly animals, but be careful: they spit when threatened!!!
The Alpaca is the domesticated form of the vicuña. It is mostly confused with the larger and heavier llama. Alpacas were not bred to be working animals, but for their fibre. Its fur gets classified in more than 50 colors, being of higher quality than the llama’s, and being used for all kinds of fabrics.
Alpacas can spit, too, though!
Vicuñas are wild and undomesticated.
They are the more delicate, smaller and gracile of the four breeds.
They are pretty shy and live mostly above 3800 meters.
Fabrics made out of vicuña wool, if you can even find it, ranges in the absolute high-class and is not easily affordable.
Guanacos don’t live in Ecuador, more in the southern regions of the continent, at around 4000 meters in Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia.
They are wild, undomesticated, having spread out meanwhile up north to Peru.
Natural predators of the guanaco include pumas and foxes. When threatened, they alert the rest of the herd with a high-pitched bleating sound, which sounds similar to a short, sharp laugh.
Side note: There are also camelid hybrids, such as the Huarizo (male llama and a female alpaca) or the Llamanaco (cross between guanaco and llama).
These cross breedings are usually sterile themselves.
In the 15th century, during the Inca empire, llamas and alpacas were of massive importance as a wool and meat source, as well as work animals.
By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived, around 10 million animals were held by the Inca. In the following century they were reduced by approximately 90%, mostly because they were slowly replaced by horses and sheep.
Today, there are around 3 million of them living on the south american continent, most being found in the high altitudes of the Andes. Due to their good-natured and gentle character, llamas are also used as therapy animals.
Last but not least, tips for your safety around them:
They don’t bite and won’t eat you, they are vegetarians.
They spit when they’re agitated, but that’s mostly at each other. They also kick and neck wrestle each other when angry.
But, absolutely cute and fun to have around!