Across the globe, in the Bolivian Andes, herders have a different system for identifying their llamas - a piece of coloured linen tied through the ears - but the animals are no less important to local food and agriculture. They are used as a source of meat and fibre and, above all, as pack animals to carry salt, potatoes and maize to markets. While camels and llamas rarely - if ever - meet, they are actually distant cousins, descendants of a rabbit-sized mammal that evolved into two of humanity's most versatile domestic animals.
Camelidae. Fossil footprints tell us that the Camelidae originated in North America about 50 million years ago. Their ancestors gave rise to sheep-sized Poebrotherium common in the present-day US around 30 million BC. During the Miocene period, as global warming led to arid climates and the expansion of grasslands, the camelids grew in size, adapted to marginal quality food, and developed a pacing gait suited to migration across the expanding steppes. By 5 million years ago, camelid herds were moving into South America and over the Bering Strait land bridge into Asia. Subsequent evolution produced two distinct genera: the Lama, now native to the Andes of Bolivia, Chile and Peru, and the Camelus - in one- and two-humped varieties - of Africa and Central Asia. While their forebears in North America were hunted to extinction, both animals were domesticated between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.
"For pastoralists in semi-arid regions, camels are the most important animal species", says a recent article in FAO's World animal review about Eritrea's multi-purpose dromedaries. "Their unique ability to survive in climatically harsh areas and browse and graze a wide range of plant species, their adaptability to high temperatures, and their resistance to disease, are all attributes that enable them to support pastoralist families without contributing to environmental degradation and desertification."
Eritrean camels come in various colours and sizes, from relatively small white animals on the southern Red Sea coast (at left) to the more robust red-haired types of the western lowlands. "Acquisition of camels starts at the birth: the father gives his son a young or newly born female camel," the report says. "The child also receives gifts of camels from his close relatives. As he grows, his herd also grows. When he marries, a portion of the family herd is allocated to him and two to seven camels are given to the new father-in-law."
The herd helps the family meet most of its basic needs. Lactating females are milked three times a day, producing about nine litres in the wet season and six litres in the dry season. Camel milk is particularly prized during dry months, when milk from other livestock is scarce - during droughts in some areas, it is rural communities' main source of nutrients. Since pastoralists usually migrate in search of fresh pasture as many as five times a year, and for distances of up to several hundred kilometres, male camels are valuable pack animals. They carry the nomads' houses and utensils, very young children, weak or sick people and young animals. Studies show that a fully grown male can carry about 150 litres of water for five to six hours, or 200 kg of sorghum for five to eight hours, covering 25 to 35 km in a day. When used to drive sesame seed mills (called assara), a camel can extract 40 litres of oil in a "normal working day".
Camel maintenance is very low tech - they browse and graze all the year round, without need for supplementary feeding. During the wet season, they nibble at small annual grasses found on seasonally flooded clay soils; during the dry, evergreen bushes and smaller trees are important sources of forage. (Working camels used in an assara get to dine on sesame oilseed by-products.) The camels' ability to move long distances and find green forage minimizes their need for water. In fact, during the wet season, they appear not to drink at all, since their needs are satisfied by lush plants. During the dry, wells dug along migration routes meet the camels' need for at least 20 to 25 litres of water a day.
Llamas are put to work as pack animals at age three - castrated males are preferred - and continue working until age nine. Caravans are led by experienced males, called delanteros, who are less likely to be frightened by the sight of predators (e.g. pumas, condors) that often create stampedes among less expert members of the pack. Loaded with an average of 30 to 40 kg per animal - although some support weights of more than 50 kg - llama caravans usually cover 20 km in a six to eight hours.
On the downward journey, llamas are most likely to be carrying salt - much sought after in lowland areas - as well as dried and salted meat (charque), the pseudocereal quinua, and chuño, a powder made from dried potato. These products are traded in lowland markets for maize, tubers, dried beans, fruit and sugar. The round trip can take up to three months, and the return journey is particularly debilitating, owing to both the steep climb and the declining seasonal availability of forage. In fact, a pack llama can lose up to 20% of its live weight before finally reaching its home pastures.
The Review notes that while new road construction and the growth of urban centres in the Bolivian Andes have reduced the role of llama caravans in transport and marketing, development programmes should support their use by rural communities in high altitude, remote areas. Likewise, "it is hoped that a place will be kept for the camel in development programmes in Eritrea's hot, arid lowlands so that it can continue to improve the economic well-being of pastoralists".
Published September 2001