Save the Alpacas!

Alpaca fleece industry is crashing due to a shortage of alpacas.

Creative Commons

Alpaca fleece industry is crashing due to a shortage of alpacas.

Momo Sutton, Reporter

Peru is home to about four million alpacas (also known as Guanaco Lama guanicoe), more than 70 percent of the world’s alpaca population, according to the National Institute for Agrarian Innovation (INIA). The alpaca was domesticated in Peru at least 6,000 years ago and are members of the camel family. They are currently classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru.

Peru’s alpaca herds produce around 7,600 tons of fleece yearly. Adults, which can weigh around 140 pounds, produce around 4.5 pounds of fleece annually. The fleece is categorized by color and quality. There are 22 shades of fleece, but white is the most common and the most sought after. Fleece is classified into seven texture categories, from super fine, which fetches the best price, to short and thick, which is discarded. Exports usually go to China, Italy, and the United States.

Peru earned approximately £88 million (roughly 118,307,200 million USD) from alpaca exports in the first seven months of 2021, on par with exports from pre-pandemic 2019. However, the pandemic crashed the alpaca fleece industry in 2020.

The Peruvian highlands are not abundant and historic records show that precipitation has never been prolific, but it was often previously enough to sustain alpacas. Alpacas give birth only in the first three months of the year, during the rainy season. They are very sensitive to cold, and brusque swings in temperatures, including cold snaps that have killed thousands of alpacas, are making herds vulnerable to illness and contributing to a higher death rate among newborn animals. Habitat degradation due to overgrazing, competition with introduced herbivores, and habitat degradation due to extractive industries are the main threats to Guanaco.

“Our pastures should have turned green but look at them. They are yellow and of little use to our herd,” Rufino Quico said, as he gazed across the fields of withered spring grasses in the Puno region of southeastern Peru. His family has tended alpacas for generations, as far back as they can remember. Rufino worries that his children will not be able to follow in his footsteps—or even if his beloved hamlet, which stands at 14,000 feet above sea level and is home to 56 families of alpaca herders, will survive the coming decades as climate change remakes the landscape.

Complicating the situation is the loss of glaciers, which is reducing stream flows that experts say have long supported the high meadows and wetlands during the long dry season between April and November. One hectare of thick marsh grasses, which grow all year, can easily host 25 alpacas, while one hectare of regular pasture is only enough for one animal to graze, reports Oscar Cárdenas, who heads alpaca programs for the National Institute for Agrarian Innovation (INIA), a government research center.

According to Peru’s National Glacier and Mountain Ecosystem Research Institute, Peru’s glacier coverage dropped from 926 square miles in 1962 to 430 square miles in 2016. It represents a 53% reduction in 54 years.

At the INIA’s Quimsachata Research and Production Center, headquartered in the Puno region, home to the largest reserve of alpaca breeds, Oscar Cárdenas’ team is working on a genetics project. He is using approximately 3,200 animals to preserve the genes of colored alpacas to ensure the colors do not disappear. The center is also focused on developing methods to help alpacas adapt to rising temperatures at high elevations and thrive at lower elevations. The INIA has been working with communities to develop low-tech solutions, including constructing stalls that can shelter herds and growing hardier forage crops, such as clover, that can supplement diets during the dry season.

As climate change continues to impact the weather in Peru on the herds, from unpredictable rainy seasons to pastures drying up, alpaca breeding families continue to adapt. As Cristina Condor, a herder, says, “My family has been trying to find solutions, because this is our livelihood, and it is what we have been doing for generations.”