• Keith Payne (writing from New Zealand)

Preserving the Llama

My initial foray into the world of camelid was a bit disappointing. Perhaps my expectations were not realistic. In 2004, I purchased 4 alpacas and 4 llamas, yearlings. My objectives were twofold: fleece and trekking companions.

The first two shearings were well received, but after that were no longer wanted (neither alpaca nor llama). I began a habit of having their fleeces tested and the results clearly evidenced an annual deterioration in fineness as well as an increase in guard hair percentage. It was puzzling.

The llamas educated me about training and gradually progressed to the point, where, by the age of 4, they were ready to accompany me on trips to the mountains. But they lacked the strength and stamina to challenge the hills while loaded moderately. Again I was puzzled.

Improved DNA analysis then showed the llama to be a domesticated guanaco and the alpaca a domesticated vicuna.
Improved DNA analysis then showed the llama to be a domesticated guanaco and the alpaca a domesticated vicuna.

I began to lose interest, but the character of the llama encouraged me not to shut the door on them.

Then camelid genetic scientists revealed the DNA testing conclusions that llama and alpaca were, in fact, two separate breeds, their genera having separated some two to three million years ago. But the crossing of these two breeds, a practice which had become rampant over the past 100 years, was resulting in the greatest risk facing both llama and alpaca; both breeds were becoming endangered due to widespread hybridisation! And it became clear to me that all of my animals were indeed hybrids.

Improved DNA analysis then showed the llama to be a domesticated guanaco and the alpaca a domesticated vicuna.

Thus began my study and research into the guanacos habits and instincts which revealed that the original llama (ccara) was a double coated animal with a low percentage of guard

hair (5-15%) and very fine inner down, the average of the two coats in the 14-16 micron range. Another single fleece type ( cha’qu) was developed over time, and a gene mutation resulted in a third fleece type, the suri. In the difficult years after the INCA were deposed by invading Spanish colonialists, these fleece types interbred resulting in the several fleece types we recognise today.

It was only when I came across and acquired the few live guanaco in NZ, remnants of zoos in Australia and Europe sold into the private sector in the 1980’s, that I was able to identify llamas which could be proven by DNA analysis to be of pure breed and not hybridised with alpaca. I decided to use these animals to begin and further a new quest to preserve the purebred llama. I have devoted my time and resources fully into this project.

My objectives, initially somewhat befuddled, have come into focus:

  • to preserve the purity of the guanaco;

  • to breed these pure llama (guanaco) with the best quality llama I can find in NZ to reinject original breed vitality, conformation, immune system and overall health into the NZ llama herds;

  • to alert llama owners to the extent of hybridisation which has taken place and generate support for an initiative to preserve both the llama and alpaca breeds. Scientists in South America consider hybridisation to be the greatest risk facing the South American Camelid’s today and have embarked on widespread programmes to arrest the direction.

Back in New Zealand, my programme is being rewarded with positive results.

Progeny from matings with guanaco males and llama females are producing fleece with a reduced percentage of guard hair, average micron of 16 - 20 micron, elimination of camped under and cow hocked hind legs, a more squared off rump and higher tail set, straighter front legs, etc, etc . While guanaco colouration does present in roughly 50% of progeny, more regular llama colouration is very much in evidence as well.

The clean face, ears and legs of the original llama are once again being recognised by llama owners as indicators of quality and purity. DNA analysis is the only sure way to determine (or not) if your llama has been hybridised and at present is expensive and difficult to access. That will change in time, but until then we can begin to address the situation:

Always breed your females to males with finer fleece. Fleece analysis should be done yearly (simple and not expensive ). A purebred llama will have the same quality fleece at age 15 as age 3, hybrids will evidence a regular deterioration with age; select males with a clean face and ears (also no long hair between ears), clean legs and a shedding coat.

In the UK you are very fortunate to have a number of pure guanaco. There is a recognised herd in Wales, and I believe a number of other quality animals spread about the countryside. These are certainly worth investigation. Most countries around the world are signatories to the IUCN convention which prohibits the transport of threatened breeds ( such as the guanaco ) and any animals currently outside of SA will be subjected to greatly increased demand over the years to come.

I welcome questions about my programme and the initiative to preserve the llama breed. My contacts are available from the British Llama Society.

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