Three years ago, five alpacas stepped off the cargo hold of a Lufthansa jet at Kathmandu airport. They literally breezed through customs and were whisked off to their new home. At last count they numbered eight, are housed on a farm at Thaiba near Godavari, and have adapted well to the Kathmandu clime.
Now, what on earth is an alpaca one might ask? They belong to the same family as the llamas and were once endemic to the rugged Andean mountains where they have been farmed for over 6,000 years. They are prized for their wool, which has a fine silky quality like cashmere. The ancient Incas treasured alpaca wool and the finest fleece was preserved for their royalty.
At Thaiba the alpacas graze about totally at home in their new surroundings owned by Hartmut and Pramila Bauder, who may actually have pioneered the introduction of these animals to Asia. The German-Nepali couple (who were also the first to introduce olive farming in Nepal) were struck by the idea on one of their treks. "We thought of ways in which people in the high-altitude regions could supplement their income. After a feasibility study, we decided to introduce alpacas in Nepal," say the Bauders.
The reason they chose the alpaca is "because of their low maintenance, their eco-friendly nature (animals like goats strip every green off plants), a long productive life of around 20 years, and because they are intelligent, quiet, gentle and hardy". The couple has already extracted around 15 kg of their fleece, which they say is "a token quantity". An alpaca normally yields 3.5-4 kg of wool every year, which fetches a good price in the international market and is free of the fluctuations that affect traditional sheep-wool.
Bringing the animals into Nepal was surprisingly very easy. "We were impressed by how everyone, starting from the ground staff at the airport to those in the Ministry of Agriculture, showed curiosity and lent a helping hand," says Pramila.
Interestingly, the alpacas that were once indiscriminately slaughtered and almost wiped out by Spanish invaders to make room for sheep are now staging a comeback and replacing sheep in many countries. Because of the growing industry of items made from their wool, farmers all over the world are replacing their sheep with alpacas, which are hence in great demand. The Bauder couple had to pay almost Rs 500,000 for each of them.
Alpacas are gentle and docile by nature, and love being in herds. Because of their gentleness, they are also easy to handle. "We haven't faced any problems-they sometimes spit at each other when they dislike their partner's actions but they never fight or bite or kick," says Hartmut. The spit of the alpacas is known to smell so vile that a partner at the receiving end cannot taste anything for more than an hour due to the overpowering odour.
Here in Godavari the alpacas live on green grass, hay and cereal feed. Alpacas don't leave their droppings all over the place. Like trained pets, they always go at the same place. "Keeping alpacas is very cost effective. They are efficient ruminants and digest almost everything they eat," says Hartmut.
For now, the couple plan to raise at least 50 more after which they might finally let Nepali farmers have them, beginning with the government yak farm in Khumjung, just north of Namche Bazar. The couple is impressed by the Animal Husbandry Department's interest in alpaca farming. If all goes well, it may only be a matter of time before Buddhist lamas in Nepal's remote mountain regions will have Andean llamas to keep them company.