The history of the introduction of alpacas to Australia makes fascinating reading. Some references maintain that alpacas were introduced into Australia in the late 1980s. In fact, they first arrived on our shores more than 100 years before, in the mid 19th century. Arthursleigh, a property not far north of Crookwell at Marulan, now owned by the University of Sydney, played a major role in the animals’ fate at the time.
Since the late 1990s, the Crookwell district has embraced alpacas and a smaller number of llamas, and these two species – both South American camelid species – have become an important and valued part of Crookwell Veterinary Hospital’s day-to-day practice.
While one reference maintains the first shipment of alpacas to Australia occurred in 1857, with four animals arriving at Port Lincoln in South Australia, the larger story revolves around an eccentric English adventurer and entrepreneur, Charles Ledger (1818-1905).
Ledger, who was rarely held back by considerations of the law, had lived in Peru in the 1830s and 1840s, making a living as a trader in wool, skins, bark and copper. During most of the 19th century, Peru prohibited the export of alpacas and other agricultural resources (Ledger was allegedly the first to smuggle out viable quantities of Cinchona tree seeds – the bark of this tree being the source of quinine).
Ledger had begun to breed alpacas in Peru in the 1840s. Following an initial approach to the British Government (or vice versa, the story varies), Ledger sailed to Sydney and secured a business agreement with the NSW Government that he would receive cash plus a land grant for the delivery of 100 alpacas to Australia.
Ledger must have been a very charismatic and persuasive individual as he successfully gathered around him a number of loyal South American shepherds who stuck with him as he spent the next five years driving a flock, illegally, out of Peru and through Bolivia to Argentina then, via an arduous journey, across the Andes to Chile. Rumours are that he was jailed several times but in November 1858 (or thereabouts) Ledger, with his South American shepherds and (depending on the reference) around 260 alpacas, llamas and vicunas, disembarked in Sydney from the ship Salvadora.
Ledger’s battles were just beginning. Any commercial interest in Australia had waned during the intervening five years and a long battle ensued with the NSW government to honour the original agreement. The Sydney Morning Herald followed the story closely, criticising the government for breaking its agreement with Ledger and leaving him, ultimately, seriously out of pocket.
Before then, Ledger proceeded with his original plan of settling the alpaca flock at Nimmitabel in southern NSW, a region he believed was similar to the camelid’s native environment. En route southwards, he decided to overwinter the flock at Arthursleigh, a property near Marulan owned by Thomas Holt. The flock stayed at Arthursleigh while Ledger battled with the government for compensation. The Mitchell Library holds a sketch-book of Ledger’s adventures with the animals during the late 1840s to 1858.
Reports of the project vary widely – from the flock thriving and breeding successfully to failure of the animals to thrive. Many reputedly died during the drought of the early 1860s, and the flock was ultimately dispersed in small numbers around the country, their numbers decreasing until there were none left by the end of the 19th century.
After alpacas, quinine
Regardless of his battles for compensation, Ledger helped the remaining South American shepherds to return to their homeland and he, in turn, returned to Chile in 1865. He turned his attention to the export of Cinchona seeds (more correctly, smuggling, as their export was also still prohibited). The Dutch government bought some seeds and established a plantation in Java. From these small beginnings, these and other plantations provided much of the world's quinine during the 1900s.
After various adventures in North and South America, Ledger returned to Australia in 1883. He died at Leichhardt in 1905, his estate valued at two pounds. His epitaph read: He gave quinine to the world.
Ledger’s initial illegal smuggling of alpacas and other camelids from South America had an unexpected positive result. The Sydney Morning Herald in 1862 reported that, due to the determination of the NSW Government to maintain the flock in Australia, the governments of Peru and Bolivia overturned export bans and within a short time alpacas were exported around the world. Some of the first shipments were to Australia – 500 alpacas for Mr Duffield in Melbourne, and 300 were sent to Tasmania to Mr Williams, formerly Her Majesty’s Consul to Bolivia.
More than a century later, in the 1980s, alpacas were again imported into Australia and the modern Australian alpaca industry began.
The above history was compiled from a range of sources, including:
- The National Library of Australia’s Trove reference library, including various Sydney Morning Herald reports throughout 1860.
- B G Andrews, 'Ledger, Charles (1818–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1974
- Australian Alpaca Association
- Australasian Alpaca Breeders Association
- Yacka Ridge Alpacas, South Australia
- Gateway Farm Alpacas, Oregon, US
- Image of headstone courtesy Australasian Alpaca Breeders Assocation Inc.