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The alpaca is an animal related to the llama. Alpacas are the domesticated form of the guanaco, a South American wild animal that roams the mountain slopes of the Andes in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
The alpaca looks like a long-haired, shaggy llama, with thick, soft wool that covers its eyes and often drags on the ground beneath its body. Alpacas are gentle animals that are agreeable with people, hearty to raise, and easy to transport. They live about 20 years, stand about 3 feet (1 meter) in height, and weigh between 100 and 200 pounds (45-90 kg.). Much like cows or sheep, they graze on grasses and chew a cud. Alpaca reproduction is fairly trouble-free and gestation is between 11 and 12 months.
Alpacas originally played an important role in the ancient Incan culture where they were treasured for their soft fleece that was worn only by Incan royalty. Large herds of alpacas high in the mountain villages of the Andes were seen as a sign of great wealth and good fortune. Having been established as the primary source of income for a large part of the South American population in recent centuries, the alpaca was first brought to the United States in 1984.
Today alpacas have become a much loved investment for American farmers, animal lovers and investors. The fleece from an alpaca is similar to wool or mohair, but it is softer and silkier and takes much longer to grow; thus it is quite expensive and in high demand. The fleece is shorn from the alpaca much like sheep's wool, without harming the animal in any way, then sold to fashion hubs around the world to be made into the finest garments. Between the two types of alpacas: the Huacaya and the Suri, fleece is available in more than 20 different colors. Softer than cashmere and lighter, stronger and warmer than wool, alpaca fleece is a luxurious commodity that produces lightweight, warm clothing.
Alpaca owners have the option to be members of the AOBA (the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association), which provides information and addresses all aspects of the alpaca fleece industry. Owners may also join the AFCNA (the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America) which gives members with the opportunity to turn their alpaca fleece into clothing and other products. Owners will also want to be part of the Alpaca Registry, in which every alpaca is documented by breeding and bloodlines.
It is generally now accepted that the alpaca is at partially a descendant of the wild vicuna rather than exclusively from the guanaco. See "Evolution and Origin of the Domestic Camelids" by Jane C. Wheeler, PhD.