The camel has long had a special place in the imagination of the West, from the Greek historian Herodotus telling a story about Indians using fast-running camels to defeat dog-sized, man-eating ants that guarded gold, through the Three Magi searching for the Christ child, Lawrence of Arabia and the desert chic of Camel cigarettes.
At school you probably learned that the dromedary (shaped like a D) has one hump, and the Bactrian (shaped like a B) has two (all very orderly). But perhaps you don't know that in the first week of their fetal lives, all baby camels have two humps. Or that the world's camel cultures are in crisis. Some camels are threatened with extinction. Others are being slaughtered as pests. Modernity, urbanization and motorization are slowly destroying a way of life that has survived for thousands of years.
I recently asked a colleague at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, Stefan Sperl, to describe the place of the camel in the Arab imaginative landscape. He said that, before 700 AD, pastoral Bedouin poetry (still highly esteemed in the Arabic and Islamic literary canon) expressed a deep emotional bond between poet and camel. Camel journeys in this poetry have philosophical meanings about the journey through life to death - naturally so, because in the harsh desert the camel is integral to family and community life.
But now camels are being viewed as vermin. Last November, under the headline "Town under siege: 6,000 camels to be shot," the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that trains of camels had invaded the town of Docker River, in the Northern Territory, breaking into houses and rooting up water pipes. During Australia's worst drought on record, the camels were desperately seeking water. They were once a cultural oddity (camels were imported in the 1840s to help open up the interior, and then left to run wild), but they have become a public menace. The local government response was to mobilize helicopters to drive them into the desert, where they would be shot and left to rot. Representatives of the cattle industry favour the cull, arguing that camels compete with cattle for sparse grazing. Environmentalists argue for a more humane and productive approach, such as developing an Australian camel industry on a par with that of cattle.
DOCUMENTING THE CRISIS
Drought is the key, as it is at another location of the camel crisis. In 2009 two researchers, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson and Hanwant Singh Rathore, embarked on a yatra (pilgrimage) by camel caravan to document the crisis in the prime camel-breeding areas of the state of Rajasthan in western India. A diary entry summarized the problem: "Yesterday we found that another 2,000 camels had been sold for slaughter at a market near here. Selling camels for meat used to be unknown in Rajasthan: The animals were far too valuable. The males were used to haul carts, and the females for breeding. But the decline in the amount of grazing land - lots of new crop fields irrigated by tubewells around here - means that it's no longer possible to keep big herds of females. The problem is that irrigated cropping isn't sustainable: The groundwater level falls, and the fields are left dry."
Rajasthan boasts a major camel fair, a popular tourist attraction, held annually around the town of Pushkar. Camels are traded in their thousands. However, the fair is now threatened with decline: India's camel population has fallen by more than half since the mid-1990s (it was a little more than 600,000 in 2005). With modernization, road building and the growth of a car economy, camels are being replaced by trucks and vehicles. Conversion of forests and grasslands to other uses, combined with damage from climate change, makes it difficult for herders to feed their camels. This is exacerbated by a recent ban on grazing in national parks. A quarter of a million people are thought to depend for their living on the region's camel trade. So campaigners are now calling for national and international support for the camel culture.
The English explorer and conservationist John Hare made four trips in the late 1990s into China's Lop Nor region, into pristine desert where he was able to study firsthand the dangers threatening the genetically distinct wild Bactrian camel. There are only 450 of them left in Mongolia and fewer than 600 in northwest China, and all are under threat. In Mongolia this is partly because of gold and iron-ore mining - particularly illegal "cowboy" mining. In China it is the result of the illegal activities of "ninja" gold miners (polluting freshwater river resources with deadly potassium cyanide used for leaching gold from rock). In Mongolia, the Bactrians were seen as competition for livestock grazing resources, and so farmers shot them.
This May, Mr. Hare's Wild Camel Protection Foundation issued an emergency statement that illegal mining pressures in Mongolia's Great Gobi nature reserve are "extremely serious and out of control"; this terrain is the natural habitat of the wild Bactrian, a species now on the critically endangered list and the subject of an intensive conservation program sponsored by the Zoological Society of London.
But the threat is not only to the wild Bactrians. The entire nomadic and camel culture of Mongolia is under threat, as encapsulated in three headline events this year. Mongolia had a traumatic climate event - a period of intense cold, after a summer drought known locally as dzud. Nomadic herders lost more than 4.5 million animals by the end of March. After a 10,000-strong demonstration, a group of Mongolians went on hunger strike outside the parliament building in Ulan Bator. They were demanding that a greater share of the gold-mining output be dedicated to the good of the Mongolian people.
The world's deserts are advancing. Land previously viable for cattle is becoming non-viable scrubland in which only camels can survive. But this has a positive side: Dr. Khalid El Bahrawy of Egypt's Desert Research Centre believes that camels can be at the cutting edge of projects of sustainable agriculture and land reclamation in times of ecological crisis because they can be farmed in those dryland areas.
A WONDER OF PRODUCTIVITY
In Mali, in Africa's northwest, desert life is harsh. The Malian group Tinariwen ("deserts" in the Tamazheq language of the region) have brought their "desert blues" to international public attention at the Festival in the Desert held each year near Timbuktu. This is no mere romantic exercise. Their music makes radical claims for camel-based nomadic Tuareg culture. With the money they earn from touring, Tinariwen funds research and community activism in Mali to improve access to water resources for desert peoples. The name of the group's latest album, Aman Iman, means "water is life," and the video that accompanies it speaks eloquently about the problem.
The camel is a wonder of productivity - alive or dead it provides useful products and services - meat, milk, skin, hair, dung, bone. Camel researchers and environmentalists are especially interested in dairy production. In Somalia the organization VETAID, together with Tierärtze ohne Grenzen (Veterinarians without Borders), has been working to find simple ways of establishing a viable camel dairy industry to benefit both the health and the livelihoods of herder populations. In Europe, farmers in Germany and Holland have taken up the challenge of camels to provide milk to North African immigrant communities.
So what is the future? In a recent letter to fellow researchers, Dr. Raziq Kakar of the Camel Association of Pakistan argued that international food and agriculture organizations have not done enough to analyze what camel cultures really face. Since numbers are falling with alarming speed it is crucial to mobilize for the conservation of these cultures. Unfortunately, camel scientists usually concentrate on veterinary-related problems, while breeds, conservation, cultural and socio-economic problems, production and marketing are generally not treated as priorities. Climate change makes camels a critical and integral part of sustainable development policies. The first step is to identify breeds and practices in communities, and construct comprehensive databases. Dr. Kakar says the CAP has joined forces with herders in Pakistan, so that their real concerns can be identified, and so that they can be centrally involved in policy-making.
Ed Emery is organizer of Universitas adversitatis, a web-based free university, and co-organizer of the 2011 Camel Conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Follow us on Twitter: