Francis E.B. Rainsford
Paul and Sally Taylor, llama breeders located near Bozeman, Montana, USA, have been raising llamas for the past thirty years. In 1990, they developed an interest in embryo transfer in llamas and the advantages associated with their importation into the States.
Importation of embryos is cheaper than the importation of live animals and safer from an animal health point of view and, additionally, imported embryos do not increase the population in the importing country as each imported embryo has to be carried by a female animal which, under normal circumstances, would likely be pregnant in any case.
The first embryo transplants in llamas were carried out by researchers in Scotland and the Taylors commenced by building a small clinic and laboratory at their ranch and purchasing a very good ultrasound machine. Knowledge of rectal palpation and the details of reproductive physiology in llamas was gained by experimentation.
Since 1993, they have produced over 300 live llama and alpaca babies by embryo transfer in the US and also in projects in Chile and Argentina. They were the first breeders to successfully have an alpaca baby carried by a llama and they have published several scientific papers about early reproduction and embryo transfer in South American camelids.
Camelid embryos start their development in the females' oviducts just as all other mammalian embryos do. The first few cell divisions after fertilization happen inside the zona pellucida, the capsule surrounding the ovum. Eventually, in a matter of a few days after fertilization, the embryo expands and breaks out of this protective capsule in a process that is called hatching. The difference in camelids, is that some mechanism retains the early embryo in the oviduct until after it hatches out of the zona pellucida.
Llama and alpaca embryos mature faster, hatching at about 6.5 days after breeding or only about 5 days after conception. Only then are they released into the uterus where they can be obtained by a simple flush.
The importance of freezing embryos is that only frozen embryos are eligible for international movement. This is because animal health authorities can be confident that an
embryo is truly disease-free if they can hold the embryo for a month or so after collection and then re-test the donor animals for any diseases. At present, it is not possible with current technology to hold a fresh embryo in culture for 30 days, so the only possibility for legal international movement of embryos is if they are frozen at the time of collection.
Paul Taylor is convinced that frozen embryo exportation and importation is the way
forward for camelid producing countries. He says, "In Peru, for example, buyers from Australia and the USA skimmed the cream of the alpaca breeding stock and shipped them out of the country, forever damaging the ability of Peruvian breeders to produce
the fine fibre that was their national heritage. By contrast, if only frozen embryos had been exported from Peru, all of the pre-existing genetic potential could have been preserved. In the future, there can be several centres in each country where fine alpacas or llamas exist, or are wanted, and their embryos can be flushed for export or where high-quality imported embryos can be transferred appropriately. International trade in camelid genetics will become routine, and a robust world market will open up for even the smallest producers of quality genetics, no matter where they live. Thanks to the breakthrough in freezing embryos, serious breeders of alpacas and llamas can look forward to being able to buy great new genetics from anywhere on earth and to being able to sell their best genetic production to other serious breeders no matter where they are."
In early December 2005, Paul Taylor persuaded the US Animal Health Association to adopt a resolution urging the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to open pathways for the international movement of South American camelids.
The resolution: "The United States Animal Health Association (USAHA) urges the USDA, APHIS, VS to consider creation of protocols for the importation into the United States of frozen hatched blastocysts of the South American camelids", and states, among other points, "International movement of frozen hatched blastocysts of the South American camelids will allow increased trade in the genetics of these species with a dramatic reduction in animal health risks and animal welfare issues involved in the importation of live animals."
Paul Taylor adds, "The whloe point of this exercise was to encourage the USDA to put the creation of protocols for the importation of frozen llama and alpaca embryos on their list of things to do, and that will happen."
If and when that day arrives, it will be interesting to see how the Peruvian authorities will respond to this new USA challenge to the world of domesticated South American camelids.
Further, and as yet unstated, the wild South American camelids, vicuña and guanaco could also be dragged into the argument - particularly in the light of a report that was printed in the Louisiana Agriculture Magazine in 2001 and which stated, "The Taylors’ next quest will be trying to produce the vicuña, which is a non-domesticated member of the same camelid family as llamas and alpacas. The vicuña, which is even smaller than the alpaca, is endangered. Taylor is negotiating with the Argentine government to obtain some vicuña skin cells to use for vicuña propagation."