NAVAJO RESERVATION, Ariz. - You see them here and there, primarily on the Navajo reservation with a few scattered around the Flagstaff area.
This tan colored, beautifully tall animal was with a herd of Navajo sheep, lazily roaming and chewing leisurely on a few blades of prairie grass and taking in the morning sun, seemingly oblivious to the multitude of drivers trying to get a better look at this South American mammal while driving on Highway 264.
Since the 1980s, alpacas and llamas became a formal industry after a small number of these "camelids" were imported from Chile. There is little difference between alpacas and their close relatives the llama. In 1995, a formal registry of these animals was created by what is called the Alpaca Registry Incorporated (ARI), and each registered animal cost about $500 at that time.
By 1998, the American Breeders Association (ABA), was worried that with the new domesticated offspring of the original imports, the market would become saturated, so they closed off additional imports.
Between 1998 and 2007, U.S. alpaca herds grew to almost 100,000 registered and unregistered alpacas and llamas, according to ABA statistics.
A primary reason for raising these animals is their wool, which is extremely valuable in the clothing and fashion industries in both the US and foreign countries. The finest type of alpaca wool, called vicuna or "baby alpaca," is often compared to merino sheep wool because of its softness. Shearing this camelid wool takes special shears, combs and cutters because it is much longer and more fine than sheep wool.
The wool is comprised of very fine, long, stable hairs with a high thermal quality, making it not only very soft, but very warm and lightweight.
Alpacas and llamas are native to the Andes mountains in South America and are one of the world's oldest domesticated breeds of livestock, dating back to the Inca empire. Inca history also used alpacas in their religious ceremonies according to Andean mythology. Incas associated alpacas with a goddess named Pach Mana or "Earth Mother" and they believed that alpacas were a special gift to their people from this goddess.
They are related to Dromedary and Bactrian camels, which are found in Asia and the middle east. Guanocos and vicuna are also found in South America. All of these animals share similar features, including two-toed, padded feet, a split upper lit and an upright walk.
These animals are highly adaptable to almost any climate. They need very little water and are very fertile. Alpacas were used as pack animals to carry large loads of supplies.
There are two breeds of alpacas, the Huacaya and the Suri but they are essentially one official breed. The Suri alpacas are bred for their fleece. Their long, loose hanging wool looks a lot like dreadlocks. Only about 9,000 are currently in the U.S. The Huacaya alpaca has shorter hair and accounts for about 95 percent of all alpacas currently bred in the U.S.
Following the Spanish Conquest, the alpaca population was almost wiped out. About 90 percent of the herds were destroyed by the Spaniards in efforts to subjugate the native peoples, but by the 19th century, alpacas were "rediscovered" by Europeans and played a large role in the American Industrial Revolution. And with the current interest in sustainability and living "green," these animals fit perfectly as they are sustainable, natural, renewable, and very self-sufficient.
Alpacas eat mostly grass and their feet are padded so they don't destroy the ground as they graze. Unlike other domestic animals, alpacas have communal dung piles so their dung can be used as fertilizer and can be easily collected since its already in one pile.
It is advised that if you have to travel with them, they know to lie down in a moving vehicle and should ideally be raised in sets of no smaller than two since they are herd animals. The ABA recommends a minimum of at least three animals in a herd.
Alpacas come in about 22 different colors, ranging from white, fawn, brown, grey and black. With each animal being able to produce about eight pounds of wool a year and with alpaca wool selling for $40 to $50 dollars a pound, they can become a good cash crop.
Some Navajos find that alpacas are good sheepherders along with their sheep dogs.