The South American highlands have camels of their own, the guanacos, which are very different from the camels that we see. They are considered to be the ancestors of llamas.
Photo: Thomas Hartmann/Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine humpless camels. That’s what guanacos look like, and that’s exactly what they are. Guanacos are related to camels and their populations are found across the South American countries of Peru, Chile and Argentina, all the way south to Tierra del Fugo. They usually live in the high Andes mountains at heights of up to 3,962 m. (13,000 feet), but are also at home in the lower plains and plateaus. They are wild animals, unlike llamas, their domesticated cousins that are also found in South America.
Guanacos stand about 91 cm. (three feet) tall at the shoulder and weigh around 100 kg. They are covered in light brown fur, and have a white underside and sport short tails. Perhaps their most interesting features are their long necks and pointy ears. They live in herds or family groups of females, their young, and a dominant male, though some males tend to live alone.
The highland areas where guanacos live are extremely dry and harsh, where strong winds are very common. With few scattered trees and shrubs, these areas are open and vast. That is why they may have developed thick eyelashes, to protect them from the dust raised during lashing winds and storms.
A few hundred years ago, over 50 million of these herbivores roamed the lands of South America. Today, a few hundred thousand remain in the wild. The main reasons for their decline are poaching and habitat loss due to competition with livestock such as sheep. The last remaining highlands need to be protected to safeguard these beautiful animals from becoming endangered.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV, No. 11, November 2015.