Llamas: not just another pretty face

by Keith Shillington and Joshua Galanter
or 6,000 years llamas have been prized as strong, dependable pack animals. Today, they are recognized for their minimal impact on the environment, a calm and friendly disposition, and natural "trail sense." All in all, llamas turned out to be the ideal solution for the Mubarak family.
The Mubaraks had been looking for a farm or ranch setting to raise their children. They were looking for an environment with animals, fruit orchards or something connected to the earth. The apple orchard in Julian just wasn't quite it; nor was the avocado ranch in Valley Center.

Rural reconnaissance

Traveling on business to South America in 1981, the Mubaraks' itinerary included a nine-hour refueling layover in Lima, Peru. Rather than hang around the airport, they decided to make it a three-day, nine-hour layover, and signed up for a llama trip to the Inca ruins at Machu Pichu. They quickly fell in love with the Indians' symbiotic relationship with the animals.
Raising llamas: here was something very farm-like, which would ultimately produce the desired atmosphere, a marketable product, and didn't result in the slaughter of the animals. Perfect.
Rancho Machu Pichu was started by obtaining a single female llama, and soon afterward, a second female llama. (llamas live in packs, and it would be cruel to have only one). Well, both llamas were pregnant, and now Rancho Machu Pichu has a "good production herd."

Light on their feet

Llamas are environmentally friendly for several reasons, one of which is the leathery padding on the bottoms of their feet. This padding, much like a dog's paw, had less impact on a trail than the hooves of most pack animals, or even a hiking boot. The padded foot also gives the llamas exceptional stability and aids in weight distribution. These soft feet don't detract from a llamas ability to carry a pack though; a well trained llama will carry up to 30% of its body weight.
Another attractive and unexpected feature of llamas is their intelligence. The Mubaraks tell a story of one hiking trip with llamas, where a strong, normally cooperative llama refused to cross a stream. This particular animal had performed this particular crossing several times in the past, but was absolutely refusing to go on. After much insistence, the llama made the crossing, tumbling the boy holding his tether in the process. It became clear that the llama knew that the tether was too short to cross safely.
Llamas are a delight to hike with, as they are very aware of their surroundings. The llamas will notice native creatures along the path and by doing so will point them out to their human companions. It is surprising how quickly a llama will sum up a trail situation and make the right move.
Anther beneficial aspect of llamas is their efficient digestive system. Efficient foragers, their prehensile lips grasp vegetation without damaging plant roots, allowing it to quickly regenerate. All that a packer needs is a pound or two of feed supplement and the llama takes care of the rest. A llama's environmental impact is similar to that of the native Mule Deer.
Llamas have a three-chambered stomach, similar to that of a cow. This stomach is so efficient that the animal passes almost no viable seeds. It is nearly impossible to introduce unwanted plants into the wilderness via llama dung. When they're not on the trail, their small odorless droppings (similar to elk droppings) are non-toxic and can be used as fertilizer without curing. At Rancho Machu Pichu, they put them through a shredder and directly onto the flower beds. Llamas also have the tendency to leave their droppings in a communal dung heap, preventing the spread of parasites and discouraging flies. These heaps are easily shoveled or scattered, making cleanup easy for the owners.

Quiet on the trail

Llamas are very quiet on the trail and don't disturb the native animals. It is unlikely that most wild animals have ever seen a llama, and are rarely frightened by one. Llamas usually are vaccinated, and are unlikely to introduce a disease into a wild population. In fact, it is more likely that a wild animal will infect a llama.
The calm and gentle personality llamas possess make them ideal for anyone to handle. They are friendly, intelligent and highly social and inexpensive to maintain, costing less to feed than a dog. Those looking for an exceptional pack animal that's economical to maintain and environmentally friendly need look no further than the llama, a well-kept secret for 6,000 years.

Joshua Galanter is currently an engineering student at Stanford University. Keith Shillington is an author and lecturer. Both express their commitment to the environment by volunteering with San Diego Earth Day.

Llama, fiber of the future?

"Llama fiber." You or I might call it llama fur, hair or wool. Whatever it's called, it can be used in a wide range of products, from biodegradable flower pots (instead of the vanishing resource, peat moss) to hats, vests and sweaters.
The natural fiber displays a variety of colors: black, tan, white, cream and red are common. Blended, they make a full range of colors. Sweaters woven from the fibers are less springy than sheep's wool and not quite as soft as cashmere. However, the resulting sweaters are warm, soft and form-fitting "slinky."

Call to Action ... what you can do

The International Llama Association estimates that more than 7,000 llamas are owned by its 287 California members. There are almost 64,000 llamas in the United States and Canada, and that number is increasing rapidly. For more information about packing with llamas, contact the Llama Association of Southern California at Rancho Machu Pichu (916-432-6840), or write to: The International Llama Association, P.O. Box 37505, Denver CO 80237.