Guanaco

from the camelid mammalian family...

The animal

The guanaco (Lama guanicoe) is a native of South America and from the camelid mammalian family and is the wild ancestor of the llama. It lives in the steppes, scrublands and mountains of Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Patagonia with a small population in Paraguay. These ecosystems are often over 4000m high and so for them to survive at such high altitudes, and therefore low oxygen levels, their blood is rich in red blood cells. A teaspoon of their blood has four times as many red blood cells as human blood. Their chosen habitat is open and therefore they rely on speed to get away from any threats, rather than camouflage and hiding. Their top speed is 64km, which is quite phenomenal when we consider that the terrain is usually quite rocky and unstable, their soft-soled hooves certainly help with that and give them traction. Their numbers plummeted after the Spanish colonized much of the region starting in 1492 and now their population is estimated to be 1-1.5 million, down from an estimated 50 million! Today the main threat to their survival is competition for resources with herders, loss of habitat, infrastructure, invasive species as well as climate change.
Guanacos are the largest herbivore and amongst the largest mammals in South America, with a shoulder height of 1-1.3m and weighing between 90 and 140kg. They often have to rely on the water they get from their food in the dry harsh environment and their three stomach chambers helps them extract all that they need from the scrub, cacti and grasses of their diet. Their distinctive split lower lip helps them manipulate and handle their food. Like other camelids, they are great at spitting and can spit over 10m! The spit can vary from saliva to stomach contents, spitting to discipline less dominant herd members, protect their food, ward off predators or, in the case of females, unwanted attention. Another characteristic that they share with other camelids is their luscious eyelashes which help protect the eyes from dust and dirt.
Common to all members of the camelid family, the guanaco has thick skin on their neck which helps to protect them from their predators. In Bolivia, this part of the animal is made into shoes, being pounded, and flattened to make the hard-wearing soles. Other traditional uses by the Techuelches, Onas and Yamanas indigenous groups are clothing, food and shelter. Their fibre is prized for its softness and valued only second to that of its relative the vicuña. Like its domestic descendent, the llama, the fibre has guard hairs, alongside the soft undercoat, which are removed before making yarn.

The fibre

They have a thick woolly coat that can be light brown, brownish yellow or rusty red, thus less varied in colour than llamas, which makes sense as they are wild, and their coat colour will help them blend into their environment. Their belly, rump and backs of the legs are usually white, whilst the head and nape are usually grey.
Down fibre is 14-18 microns in diameter and is hollow, adding to its insulation properties. There is a small population established from introduced individuals in the Falkland Islands, and there are individuals in zoos and a small population being commercially farmed otherwise they are limited to South America, thus their scarcity and the softness of the yarn makes this a very expensive commodity.

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Ethical and environmental considerations

It’s delicate fibre may be the saviour of the species as well as the humans that share its habitat. As a direct competitor for resources of livestock, communities do not see the benefit of sharing the resources needed for their livelihood with this species. However, a means of this conflict resolution could see numbers increase. In Argentina, the La Payunia Provincial Reserve was established in the 1980s to protect this unique ecosystem including the fauna, such as the guanaco. The small human population of 150 rely heavily on goats, however, extensive grazing has led to land degradation and thus low animal productivity. The communities in this remote location are economically marginalised and facing a very uncertain future. In 2005 the Payun Matur Cooperate was established to enable live shearing of the wild guanaco, which directly links their economic stability to the conservation of this species and its important habitat and thus they are seen as a benefit to their livelihoods and invested in their survival.
Due to its rarity, there are few suppliers of this yarn thus it is relatively easy to trace their sources and assure yourself of the ethical and welfare standards behind the fibre collection. The practice of capturing this wild species, shearing and releasing will cause stress to the individuals.

Knitting with it

Our advice… be careful! It is expensive! This wonderful fibre evolved to protect the animal against the harsh cold elements of their habitat thus garments made from it are extremely warm and comparable to cashmere in softness. Alongside the softness and warmth, it is also prized for its lightweight, water-resistance and durability. The fibre has very low levels of lanolin, most if not all is removed during the yarn making process, thus it has low allergic properties.

The fibre

Ethical and environmental considerations

Knitting with it

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