The four forms commonly distinguished by the inhabitants of South America are recognized as distinct species (although it is possible to cross the species). These are:
- the llama, Lama glama (Linnaeus);
- the alpaca, Vicugna pacos (Linnaeus);
- the guanaco (from the [[Quechua] "huanaco"), Lama guanicoe (Müller); and
- the vicuña, Vicugna vicugna (Molina)
The largest and strongest of these four, the llama is appreciated as a pack animal (which can carry up to 60 kg), stands around 1.80 meters tall and comes in a variety of colors. Llamas are also bred for their meat. The domesticated llama is descended from a wild guanaco ancestor, though at this point there has been a considerable amount of hybridization between the two species.
Like the llama, the alpaca is known only in its domesticated state. Alpacas are smaller than llamas and are bred mainly for their thick wool, which is popular in the textile industry. Alpaca meat is also eaten, however a recent change to Peruvian law granting the alpaca protected status has made it illegal to operate a commercial alpaca meat business in Peru.
The vicuña, which is smaller and runs wild, features extremely fine fur of a nearly uniform light-brown color, passing into white below. Its fur is in such demand that poachers have driven it to the verge of extinction. Before being declared endangered in 1974, only about 6,000 animals were left. Today, the vicuña population has recovered to about 350,000, and while conservation organizations have reduced its level of threat, they still call for active conservation programs to protect population levels from poaching, habitat loss, and other threats. Today, the animal is protected by the Peruvian State. The vicuña is the national animal of Peru; its emblem is used on the Peruvian coat of arms representing the animal kingdom.
The guanaco is also a wild camelid. Their coloring is similar to that of the vicuña, ranging from a light brown to dark cinnamon and shading to white underneath, but their faces are grey. Guanaco fibre is particularly prized for its soft, warm feel and is found in luxury fabric. The guanaco's soft wool is valued second only to that of the vicuña.
It is believed that millions of years ago the camelid family inhabited what is now North America. At some point a group emigrated to Alaska and then over to Siberia, giving rise to the present-day Indo-European camel. Another group then emigrated south, discovering an ideal habitat in the central Andes. Over the centuries, various Andean cultures have crafted images of llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas, from the cave paintings of Toquepala, depicting hunting scenes, to the more sophisticated Inca pottery. These animals have also formed part of countless ritual ceremonies, whether as sacrificial victims or as companions to their overlords in their tombs.
- ↑ http://fine-alpaca.co.uk/alpaca-meat.php
- ↑ Baldi, R. & Wheeler, J. (2008). Vicugna vicugna. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 3 January 2009.
- ↑ http://www.perutravels.net/peru-travel-guide/nature-andean-camelids.htm