for National Geographic News
On the edges of a sheep farm, a coyote lurks, licking his chops. Suddenly, the sheep's guardian lets out a strange cry that sounds like a rusty hinge and charges the fence. What's this fleecy shepherd raising the alarm? A llama, better known as a pack animal and source of meat and wool in the Andes and plains of southern South America.
"Any place where a coyote could come in, people are starting to use llamas," said William Franklin, professor emeritus at Iowa State University. This method of protecting sheep seems to have a wide appeal as a non-lethal way to ward off predators. "It makes the wildlife biologists happy because it's a balance of nature," he said.
Franklin has surveyed ranchers using llamas to protect sheep, and found that llamas seem to be earning their keep. More than half of the llama owners he contacted reported 100 percent reduction in their predator losses after employing the animal as a guard.
The majority of guard llamas in the U.S. are patrolling Western ranches. But with larger predators like coyotes moving eastward, more flock owners might be interested in llamas as guardians.
South America's Camel Family
Llamas come from a family of four-footed animals called camelids, which also include alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos. They are thought to share a common ancestor with the camels and dromedaries of Africa and Asia.
Llamas were first domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in the Peruvian highlands. Early South American cultures bred them for size and endurance. Alpacas were selected for their fine fibers, which could be woven into textiles.
When the Spanish brought in new types of livestock, the llama faded into obscurity, surviving only in the highest mountains. People hunted wild vicuña and guanaco nearly to extinction. Only recently has interest renewed in preserving these wild camelids and their domesticated relatives.
Franklin began his foray into the camelid world through his studies of vicuñas and guanacos of South America two decades ago. He noticed that wild vicuñas could be very aggressive toward dogs.
"They would follow them, they would chase them, they would even kick at them sometimes," Franklin said. At one time, it is thought, members of the dog family may have been major predators of camelids, so the llama's fierce response to them may have become instinctive.
Llamas react to canids threatening herds in a variety of ways, starting with a posture to alert others in the herd, then sounding a special alarm cry, and often running towards the threat, kicking and placing themselves between it and the herd. Dogs and coyotes have been injured and even killed by llamas.
Farmers who pastured llamas with sheep discovered that fewer sheep were lost to coyotes. Observation soon revealed the llamas' defensive behavior in the face of predators.
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