Social distancing measures with llamas, Durango Trails, Colorado

Social distancing measures with llamas, Durango Trails, Colorado

These days we’re all talking about social distancing, or, more accurately, physical distancing but how far should we be staying away from each other? Some advice is 1.5 meters, some is 2 meters. People working in the old scale are saying 6 feet. What does it all mean? How can we quickly estimate how far away we are from other people out on the street or in the supermarket? 

Well, Kansas City Zoo has suggested keeping two capybaras — the world’s largest rodents — between yourself and those around you. Now, capybaras are very cute, and being quite short they’re a sensible choice for people in flats. The problem with capybaras though is that with so many buying restrictions across a range of products during this pandemic, needing two of anything can be a bit tricky. 

Another suggestion that’s been doing the rounds on social media has been keeping one llama between you and others. Like our capybara measure, this seems to have started in the United States, in Colorado where there is quite the llama-loving population. Is this achievable in Australia? Do we even have llamas in Sydney? We do.

Listen to Rachel and Alex on 2SER here

The history of llamas (and their smaller cousins, alpacas) in Sydney goes back to Governor Phillip Gidley King, who suggested importing these animals as early as 1803. Both types of animals belong to the camelid family; llamas are quite tall, coming in at about 2m (and about 1.8m long) and they weigh between 160 and 200kgs; alpacas are about 1.4m tall and weigh between 50 and 70kgs; they both produce fleece, with the alpaca producing a softer and a larger quantity of fleece than the llama. Reasonably hardy, they were seen by some colonial administrators as another promising addition to agriculture in New South Wales. Yet the idea languished until the 1850s.

Illustration of the animals en route, by Santiago Savage, from a record of Charles Ledger's journeys in Peru and Chile,October 1857, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (MLMSS 630/1)

Illustration of the animals en route, by Santiago Savage, from a record of Charles Ledger’s journeys in Peru and Chile,October 1857,  Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (MLMSS 630/1)

In 1853 the British-born, South American-based adventurer Charles Ledger (some of his papers are at the State Library of NSW) pushed for their introduction in Australia and approached the Governor of the day Sir Charles FitzRoy. Ledger was supported by Sydney-based businessmen Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and Thomas Holt among others, who saw the potential of llamas and alpacas for the colonial textile industry. This all sounds fabulous. The reality was, however, very different. The first obstacle was a ban on the exporting of these animals by the Peruvian Government. Ledger was also facing competition from other Australian entrepreneurs and importers.

By 1858, these animals were big news. The year began with reports of the introduction of 150 llamas to the United States, amid enthusiastic endorsements of similar ventures for Australia. Reports followed in May of six beasts soon to be received in South Australia by enterprising importers, and then of the purchase of ten more in London by a Sydney merchant. This led to even more ambitious plans, and a public subscription was established to purchase the rest of the herd that had found itself in London as a gift for the colony of Victoria. (Llamas do make a lovely gift.)

The Sydney Morning Herald was enthusiastic about the animals’ impending arrival:

After many years’ unavailing exertion we learn, with great pleasure, that the Llama or Alpaca is about to be introduced to Australia, in numbers to assure their naturalisation. Their export from Peru has been jealously interdicted by the Government of that country.

Mr Ledger's alpacas and llamas at Sophienburg, the seat of Mr. Atkinson, New South Wales c1859, courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.obj-136096736)

Mr Ledger’s alpacas and llamas at Sophienburg, the seat of Mr. Atkinson, New South Wales c1859, National Library of Australia (nla.obj-136096736)

When the first ten animals arrived in Sydney in November 1858 there was great interest in the exotic species:

… These beautiful and interesting creatures … were landed on Wednesday … and conducted up Pitt Street to the emporium of Messrs R.C. Burt and Co., where they at present remain for inspection, preparatory to being brought under the hammer. They are singularly pretty animals, something like a double cross between a camel, an ostrich, a sheep, and a donkey: and appeared as well as can be expected after their knocking about at sea. The young one would make quite a lady’s pet.

Our friend Ledger, adventurer-turned-smuggler-of-camelids, had started work on bringing together his herd of llamas and alpacas in 1853, procuring animals in Peru, near the border of Bolivia, and then driving the herd overland to Argentina, then on over the Andes Mountains into Chile. Many of the animals did not survive the arduous journey and Ledger arrived in Sydney, in late 1858, with a flock of around 280. Twelve of the men who had travelled with him through South America had joined him and the animals on the voyage.

The animals grazed on the Sydney Domain before they went out to the property Sophienburgh at Liverpool. Ledger was honoured and his bravery lauded. Their first shearing in Liverpool in late 1859 was a gala society event, attended by the rich, famous and fashionable The llamas remained in Liverpool for over a year before Ledger, as the Government’s Superintendent of Alpacas, took them on the road to what he hoped would be suitable terrain, eventually pasturing them near Goulburn.

Some of Ledger's flock after their sale in 1863 at Thomas Lee's Bathurst property Woodlands, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (SV/19)

Some of Ledger’s flock after their sale in 1863, at Thomas Lee’s Bathurst property Woodlands, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (SV/19)

Unfortunately however, Ledger had trouble getting the government of the day to reimburse him for his endeavours and the huge costs he’d outlaid, and in 1863 the herd was broken up. Little is known of the lives of the llamas after this – some were purchased by farmer Thomas Lee at Bathurst, others had been given away to farmers as far away as Queensland, or went to zoos or as curiosities to places like the Gladesville mental asylum, or the home of Sir Henry Parkes.

Sadly, all these efforts to bring the llama and alpaca to Australia during the colonial era failed, mainly due to drought and mismanagement, and the small numbers of animals imported which prevented proper breeding programs. Llamas, and alpacas, were reintroduced to Australia in the 1980s, and while they will never compete with sheep in this country, they are a most useful measurement tool in the age of social distancing.




Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel! 

For more, listen to the podcast with Rachel & Alex here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.


Andrews, B.G. ‘Ledger, Charles (1818–1905).’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1974.
‘After Many Years.’ The Sydney Morning Herald , 22 October 1858, p4.
‘The Alpacas.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 1859, p8.
‘Alpacas in Australia.’ Yacka Ridge Alpacas website, 2020.
Annotated watercolour sketches by Santiago Savage, 1857-1858, being a record of Charles Ledger’s journeys in Peru and Chile; with maps and notes. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Call No. MLMSS 630/1.
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‘Safe Trail Use During COVID-19.’ Durango Trails, Colorado, 2020.
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‘What’s the Difference?’ Alpaca Magic website, n.d.

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