Llamas and alpacas are completely domesticated animals. Starting around 4000 BC the Incas in the higher Andes Mountains began using the ancestors of today’s modern llamas and alpacas for their fiber, meat and dung; as well as their packing abilities. The Incas maintained highly controlled breeding programs, breeding out alpacas for fiber (the finest fiber was reserved for nobility) and llamas as beasts of burden.
Today, you won’t find any llamas or alpacas in the wild. However, their wild cousins, the guanacos and vicuña still thrive in South America. Guanacos are believed to be the forebears of llamas.
Even though our familiar llamas come in a variety of colors, almost all guanacos have the same coloring: they are light to dark brown on top and white underneath, but their faces are gray. They are more similar in size to an alpaca, standing 3-4 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing about 200 pounds. They are clearly in the camelid family with long necks, short tails and large heads. And no banana-shaped ears for them; theirs are short and straight.
Guanacos are found in southern Peru, Western Bolivia, Tiertra del Fuego and on the Navarino and Falkland Islands. They are real survivalists. They can survive in the Atacama Desert getting water from cacti, in rainy, windy areas such as the Torres del Paine National Park and high in the mountains. In fact, guanacos can live up to 4,000 meters above sea level! They can survive in this low oxygen environment because they have 4x the number of red blood cells (oxygen carrying cells) than humans do. Additionally, their hearts are 15% larger than those of animals of comparable size.
Similar to llamas, guanacos are gregarious creatures. The females live in herds of up to ten females and their babies guarded by a single dominant male. Males without females gather in large bachelor herds that can contain 50 or more males. Here, the males hone their fighting skills for when they take on their own herd.
The guanaco population underwent a steep decline once Europeans migrated to South America. They dropped from 50 million to about 600,000 due to competition with non-native sheep and overhunting for fiber and meat. Now, it is illegal to hunt guanaco and sustainable practices, such as catch, shear and release, are helping to maintain the population. Hopefully with conservation practices, these elegant animals will not be lost.
Blogging my way from A to Z as part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge! My theme for this year: Llama mama. G for Guanacos.
Photo courtesy of Michael Fraley.