Hong Kong’s first alpacas arrive by air

Following months of import and quarantine protocols, Cathay Pacific Cargo transports four alpacas from Australia to become stars of a farm attraction

Four new arrivals in Hong Kong may not have names yet, but they are already known as the very first creatures of their kind in the city. They are alpacas, flown in from Perth by Cathay Pacific to become the stars of a pioneering educational and tourist attraction in Hong Kong’s New Territories.

The alpacas now reside at Go Green Organic Farm’s Pineapple Farm in Kam Tin in the New Territories. The farm is founded on four principles – organic, green, low carbon and the environment – and works with other Hong Kong companies on CSR (corporate social responsibility) and volunteer schemes, growing vegetables for local projects for the elderly.

Pineapple Farm is the brainchild of General Manager Raymond Cheng, who previously ran the attraction as a licensed Hello Kitty-themed farm before changing the design in 2014. ‘Pineapples are associated locally with good luck,’ says Raymond. And fortunes have been good, with the farm hosting several tours at the same time on its busiest day, with visitors keen to learn about farming or joining craft and cooking courses based around the spiky fruit.

So why bring in alpacas? Raymond says: ‘They are very cute-looking, and l think everyone who sees them would like to touch or feed them, or take pictures with them.’

Being the first to do something comes with a cost. ‘No one had previously applied to import this animal in the past,’ says Raymond. ‘It meant the process would be lengthy because we would be the first.’

He was right. It took more than 18 months and over 300 emails to get the import protocol resolved between Australia and Hong Kong, followed by two attempts at shipping. The first attempt, in December 2018, saw the shipment turned back before it could be placed on the aircraft in Australia.

All the time and effort put into making this shipment finally happen makes the alpacas’ actual flight from Perth to Hong Kong look like a short hop by comparison. Here’s the story behind their journey.

The shipper

Steve Ridout runs Wildflower Alpacas with his wife Sue from their home in north Queensland. They have been involved with breeding and exporting alpacas from farms located in South East and South West Australia for the last 20 years. ‘We don’t just export animals – we also help with the protocols if the destination hasn’t imported alpacas before, as was the case with Hong Kong,’ he says.

The farm of origin for the four alpacas was near Albany in Western Australia, on the opposite side of the country from the first isolation property. All states in Australia have a different disease status for Johnes disease, a viral disease that affects cattle, sheep and alpacas. Western Australia is the only state to have ‘Free’ status. Although individual animals may not have the disease, the threat of Johnes can impact their export – an issue that Wildflower addressed through quarantine protocols.

‘There was a 30-day quarantine process agreed with the Department of Agriculture in Western Australia,’ explains Steve. ‘We set up the quarantine facility on the farm and added a few more animals into the programme just in case any of them had results that would prevent them from being exported.’

Wildflower’s quarantine facilities are based in Victoria and South West Australia. ‘They’re isolated on properties of experienced breeders, but under our guidance and export licence,’ Steve says. ‘All we need is a mobile phone and a laptop, and we could be anywhere in the world and continue our business. We will go down to the farm and make sure the animals are doing okay in quarantine.’

Steve also supervises the transport of animals and loads them on to the aircraft. For the alpacas going to Hong Kong, he used a specially built crate with separate pens for the male and female animals, as per IATA requirements. ‘The number of animals that we export fluctuates, but we’ll handle a minimum of a few hundred each year,’ he says.

The consignee

At Pineapple Farm, it was a long wait for Raymond to get his alpacas. ‘We had been expecting the animals to arrive last December,’ he says. ‘Cathay Pacific called to let me know that they were on the way, but then the shipment was stopped suddenly by Hong Kong’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation due to a protocol issue.’

A second shipment was then postponed because the alpacas were in an area in Australia that was not classified as a Johnes disease free zone – hence the animals in the successful shipment coming from a different region of the country.

There was also work to do on the farm in Hong Kong, as the alpacas needed a licence to be displayed, which called for finding a veterinary practice that had experience with these animals. They would also need to be kept in quarantine at the farm upon arrival.

In September, Raymond was finally able to go to Hong Kong International Airport to meet the alpacas. ‘Cathay Pacific called me again to say the animals were on their way, and they were really helpful in advising what sort of truck I’d need to transfer their crate to the farm,’ he says. ‘When I got there, the alpacas were sitting peacefully in their crate, waiting to go to their new home. Steve told me they were so quiet at Perth too. We gave them some food at the airport, and they ate. That was a special moment for me.’

Now the animals are out of quarantine, and happy to be in their new home. Raymond says: ‘They have a grass area with shade and sand, so they roll around and groom themselves, and there is a concrete pen where they go when it rains so they don’t cut up the grass.’

The flight

Kavitha Menon, Cathay Pacific Cargo Manager for Perth, received a call from DHL Global Forwarding asking if she could handle the animal shipment. Although Perth is not on the freighter network, the airline was still able to handle the request from that port. ‘The good news is that the dimensions of the crate allowed the alpacas to fit in the lower deck of our passenger flight,’ she says.

Alpacas are good travellers and looked at ease inside the crate that Steve had designed. ‘They are generally calm,’ Steve says. ‘Most bloodstock animals are handled quite regularly, and have a routine of coming in to be fed. As long they’re handled well, have feed and are in a cool environment with plenty of fresh water, they are fine. If there’s vibration, they kneel down like camels do. We used to farm sheep, and I’d rather handle an alpaca every time.’

You can learn more about Pineapple Farm here.

All about alpacas

Alpacas are a smaller relative of the camel – they both have long necks and beguiling eyes – but are actually native to the highlands of the Andes in South America. They are related closely to the llama, and were bred in that region for their high-grade wool rather than as working pack animals, and have been domesticated for thousands of years.

They are now in demand globally for their wool, meat and as domesticated animals. They have moved on from their natural Andean home to be raised around the world, especially in Australia and New Zealand. ‘Australia has some of the highest quality alpacas in the world outside of South America,’ says Steve. ‘Australia imported alpacas in the 1980s and has been working on breeding to enhance their genetic characteristics. These are now some of the best animals in the world, so a lot of people use this stock to enhance their own genetic breeding programmes.’

Alpacas are neat and tidy animals – for example, they designate a communal toilet area. They are also friendly, quiet, inquisitive, and can be petted (but avoid the head and neck), so they are ideally cast as the new stars of Pineapple Farm.