The one-humped Bedouin camel, either alone or together with sheep and goat husbandry, offers one possibility to combat malnutrition in perennial drought areas.
The members of the Camelidae are to be found in various areas of the world. The value of the smaller members of the family and the two-humped Bactrian camel is to be found in wool, hides and transport. Milk does not play a significant role in the economic importance of these animals. Nevertheless, the Bactrian camel is of importance in parts of Russia, where they are kept fairly intensively and are even machine milked (Knoess), (Kuchabeen, et al., 1972). The Arabian camel was domesticated because of its potential value as a source of milk (Epstein, 1971).
What makes the camel so special in the deserts and semi-deserts is its ability to survive the severe drought conditions by many, and varied, physiological mechanisms. Although other ruminants have large quantities of water in their digestive tracts, as is needed for normal digestive processes, their water turnover is far greater than that of the camel (Macfarlane, 1964; Macfarlane and Howard, 1972). This low water turnover enables the camel to graze relatively far from water sources (Schmidt-Nielsen, 1958) and to replenish losses in a very short time (Yagil, et al., 1974). Whereas lambs and calves must have drinking water, even during the period before weaning (Stephenson, et al., 1980), the young camels can subsist on their mothers milk alone (Yagil and Etzion, 1980a, b). Therefore, water resources when limited, can be utilized far better by camels than by other animals.
Camels do not need to enter the water to cool down, and well-planned stalls can keep the animals out of direct sunlight without increasing the heat load. In stall feeding, feed will be used for production and not burned off as energy in the long treks searching for food. In hot and dry areas buildings do not have to be necessarilly solid brick, but should have suitable roofing, enclosed by a solid fence to prevent animals being stolen or breaking out a water and feed trough and an area for milking, examination and treatment.
Milk production of camels in drought areas can be a valuable source of food for the human population. In severe drought sheep, cattle and goats die, while the camel remains relatively unaffected (Seaman, Holt and Rivers, 1978). It often is the only provider of food (Sweet, 1965). The inability to recognize the value of this animal to date is due to a number of factors. The notion that camel raising is a primitive occupation and not socially acceptable is the main reason for the decline in camel raising (Knoess, 1979). Quick-return crops or grazing, quick-reproducing sheep and goats appears to be a better value than maintaining camels for long periods (Dahl and Hjort, 1975). Grazing land is becoming scarce and is of poor quality for efficient production (personal communication). Camel raising is on the decline because it is considered a high-risk proposition (Dahl and Hjort, 1979) as well as uneconomical. In addition, the importance of the camel as a riding animal or a beast of burden is declining from year to year, as nomads turn to mechnized transport.
In all the arguments against camel raising, the most important fact has been overlooked by the planners, and even by the owners of the camels themselves: in times of severe drought the camel can be the only animal that will digest the remaining flora, and on it can produce milk and meat for human nutrition (Sweet, 1965). There is much truth in the quotation from the Koran that “the camel was given to man as a gift from God”.
When faced with a lack of drinking water the milk production of the camel is unaffected (Yagil and Etzion, 1980b), unlike that of most other milk-giving animals (Bianca, 1965; Konar and Thomas, 1970). The quality of milk produced is what makes the camel of immense value for human nutrition in times of water shortage. The milk of the dehydrated camel appears to be diluted (Yagil and Etzion, 1980a). The water content is one of the highest known and there is an accompanying decline in fat content, however, salt content is increased. The feed that is eaten will directly affect the final taste of the milk (Shalash, 1979). As the nutritional value is high, the camel therefore provides a nutritious and diluted food, supplying calories, minerals and water, which are greatly needed. It has long been known that desert travellers take a milch camel with them when wandering through the desert. This was always considered as being done to provide a source of food, but it is now clear that as a reserve of liquid they are of extreme importance. The Bedouin confirm that on their trips the milk was very watery (Personal communication).
The various ways of preserving camel milk, as acidified products or butter (Gast, et al., 1969; Grigoryants, 1954; Nemekh and Accolas, 1978) are primitive, but efficient, methods of preserving the milk. What is known to date concerning Bedouin camels' milk production has been gathered from camels which have not been genetically selected for milk production or raised to increase milk production. Nevertheless, relatively large amounts of milk can be produced, ranging from 5 to 13 kg a day (Knoess, 1979). A herd of camels producing such amounts of milk would be sufficient to keep numerous people alive in times of drought. If methods are found to increase shelf-life of milk, or if the population is trained to acidify and store milk, the danger of malnutrition in times of drought would be greatly lessened.
In rainfed agriculture the camel is a better producer of milk than any other domestic animal (Knoess, 1979).
Cows at an environmental temperature of 32°C have a reduced dry matter intake, which limits not only milk production, but also body-weight (Bianca, 1965). An environmental temperature of 40°C depresses the appetite of Holstein and Jersey cows almost completely but not that of Zebu heifers. Animals devote more time to shade seeking and less to grazing. Dehydrated camels look for shade; stalls would provide adequate protection. In cows the high production of milk increases total heat load and thus increases susceptibility to heat stress. The changes in milk yield and milk composition resulting from a hot environment are thus a combination of the direct effect on milk yield and voluntary starvation (Bianca, 1965).
The small black Bedouin goats, however, are not only able to go 2–4 days without drinking water, but are able to produce around 2 kg of milk a day (Shkolnik, Maltz and Gardin, 1980). This opens up the possibility of combined grazing of camels with this type of hardy, high producing goat. More research needs to be carried out on such animals and on various sheep breeds, that, with better husbandry, could produce both milk and meat in drought areas and not only in the rainy periods. Providing shade and stall-feeding would decrease the heat-stress on these animals and allow them to lose less water for cooling and so continue producing for longer periods. When the drought becomes too severe, these animals can be sold or slaughtered. In the following rainy period these herds of sheep and goats can easily be rebuilt. In the meantime, the camel will continue to produce during severe drought. This will make a high-risk economical venture a venture of survival.
The four conditions that must be met before pastoral industry in least developed area can be undertaken, are (Squires, 1976):
Availability of free land, producing suitable forage
Demand for animal products
Low labour requirement
Suitable animals for breeding and herd improvement
The limited availability of free land is slowly becoming a pressing problem with increasing urbanization. Nevertheless, there are still enough arid and semi-arid areas which are fairly barren, but can be readily grazed by camels. They are often the only animals that can survive in those areas. But the land is not sufficient, and there must be suitable forage (Squires, 1976; 1978, 1979). Here the introduction of hardy forage plants will greatly increase the grazing capabilities, which not only will increase the production of the animals, but will allow more animals to graze intensively in a defined area which will alleviate the squabbles between home-steaders and nomads. It is also possible to go over, partially or wholly, to stall keeping. Forage can be grown as shrubs (Forti, 1971), as fields that can be harvested, even mechanically (Pasternak, 1981) or close to the encroaching townships using municipal rubbish dumps, (Forti, et al., 1971). The hardy plants are readily eaten by the camel as they are mainly salty plants with a high protein content. Trials on the introduction of various species of Atriplex, Acacia and Cassia have been a great success in semi-arid zones, and the improved grazing land with increased carrying capacity has given good results.
The second condition for pastoral industry, the demand for animal products, needs no further comment. The alleviation of malnutrition is the quest of the coming years. Even today there is a big market for camel meat in various parts of the world, where drought is of limited importance. Exporting meat, of the young males that are not used for breeding, would provide a good income for camel breeders. If relatively bare areas can be covered with fodder not only camels, but sheep and goats can be kept at the same time, which will greatly increase the production of animal protein and provide a fall-back to the slower-producing camels in times of drought. The extremely rapid development of Atriplex, combined with its density and height, present grazing sheep and goats with problems, but camels grazing at the same time open up paths between the bushes. The camels graze at different levels than the sheep or goats thus forming a perfect symbiosis in grazing. Land use can thus be more productive than agriculture based on cultivated crops, as this can lead to soil erosion (Knoess, 1979).
The third condition for pastoral industry, a low requirement of labour, is especially applicable in the case of the grazing camel. Herding is not labour intensive, even though during the mating and calving periods more help is needed. Stall-raising would increase the labour, because of the need to bring food to the animals, but the introduction of mechanization would elevate the level of farming and greatly reduce the labour requirements. Families would not have to be separated, and so the community as a whole would enjoy the benefits of social services, without breaking their link with tradition.
The most important condition for pastoral industry is choosing the breeding stock. This is of vital importance and will probably need a lot of persuasion and education before suitable progress can be achieved. Building up a suitable herd is not an easy matter. It is easier to choose a good male than to choose good females and cull the bad ones.
At the moment the main reason against raising camels is the long periods without production: six years to wait for sexual maturity and then a long calving interval of two years (Dahl, 1979), however the calving interval can be shortened to 18 months (Knoess, 1976). With good management this interval could be reduced to a year, or 15 months. If the calves are separated from their mothers within the breeding season, a month or so after birth, the female camel will quickly come on heat. This would then allow for breeding in the same season as calving. Although climate as well as feeding have considerable effects on the fertility of the animals, improved nutrition would increase the health and so the fertility of the animals. The combination of balanced nutrition and education in the selection of both males and females will shorten the period before maturity and improve the birth weight and calving intervals. Disease control will also lessen abortions and perinatal deaths. It is quite clear that the increase in milk and meat production will be determined by all of the above factors. Selection, on its own, will not have a great effect on undernourished animals. Well-fed animals will show no improvement if ill or worm infested. The goal of a healthy, well-fed and high-producing animal can be achieved even in a drought area with good planning, control, education and aid.
Increasing camel production will not take place rapidly, nor will it be easy to convinve populations that have not previously owned camels or have left camel raising for easier and “more modern” businesses. Camel raising in feed-lots need not to be left to people who have previously managed camels, but it can be a self-sufficient industry close to an urban centre, utilizing unskilled man-power which is creating a labour problem in the towns. The photography of the camel providing milk for both man and animal is a vivid expression of the ties between the camel and man in drought areas of the world.
In conclusion no more appropiate words can be used to sum up the situation described in the foregoing than those written by Knoess in 1977: “Countries in the arid zones of the world should reconsider the role of the camel and camel breeding, if they are to capaitalize on the unique potential of these animals to produce protein and other animal products at relatively low cost from desert and steppe lands and from farm wastes”.