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The Rashaida camel and mechanized sorghum production

Camel breeds of the Sudan
Mechanized sorghum farming
The Rashaida pastoral system

I. Köhler-Rollefson, B. E. Musa and M. Fadl Achmed
The authors' addresses are as follows: Dr use Köhler-Rollefson, Department of Anthropology, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA 92182-0377, USA; Dr Babiker Musa, Camels Affairs, PO Box 2844, Seed International Airport, Oman; Dr Mohammed Fadl Achmed, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Khartoum, PO Box 32, Khartoum, the Sudan.

Over the past few decades camels have begun to regain recognition for their food-producing potential in arid and semi-arid areas. After having been dismissed as uneconomical and even ridiculed as anachronisms, their vital role in supporting human populations in some of the poorest and frequently drought-stricken areas of the world, such as the Horn of Africa, has now been widely acknowledged (Hjort af Ornäs, 1988). The devastating African drought in 1984- 1985 demonstrated that, in similar crises, camel ownership can give pastoralists a competitive edge and an excellent chance for survival. Whereas entire herds of cattle, sheep and goats succumbed to the arid conditions, camel populations survived relatively unscathed. Consequently, some pastoral groups with deeply ingrained traditions of cattle herding, such as the Samburu in northern Kenya, started to acquire camels (Sperling, 1987), a fact which has come to the attention of development agencies and international organizations.

Although the usefulness of camels is now being realized by a much wider audience, the consensus still holds that these animals represent a viable economic option only in very marginal areas where other types of livestock do not thrive and cultivation is not feasible. In Africa (the situation in India is different) camel husbandry still tends to be associated with a high degree of nomadism and is regarded as incompatible with, or at least peripheral to, agriculture.

In parts of the rain-fed agricultural belt of the Sudan, current developments suggest that camels are indeed able to be integrated with crop cultivation systems. They can exploit efficiently the by-products of large-scale mechanized durra (sorghum) cultivation and may even mitigate some of the ecological side-effects for which these monocropping schemes are known.

Camel breeds of the Sudan

The Republic of the Sudan has the second largest camel population in the world, estimated to number close to three million head (Salih, 1988), and the country is home to some of the most well-known camel nomads, the Kababish, Shukria, Hadendowa and others. Most tribal groups breed distinctive types of camels (Mason and Maule, 1960). Well-known among these are the Anafi and Bishareen, prized for their racing and riding capacities, the Rashaidi, a sturdy transport camel with superior drought resistance, and the large whitish Lahaween, which gives high meat yields.

The Arab type of camel is well suited for meat production and transportation. Camel milk is important at the subsistence level but is rarely marketed. The export of camels for slaughter - mostly to Egypt, but also to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and other countries, is an important source of foreign currency. Not to be overlooked in a country with few roads and a chronic fuel shortage are the transport functions of this species.

The Rashaida tribe breeds two distinct types of camel. A small number of Anafi breeding stock is kept to cater for the lucrative racing camel market in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, but the majority of the tribe's camels belong to the Rashaida breed. This is a relatively small-sized breed, stocky and characterized by its reddish colour during adulthood, although young animals are dark grey. It is known for its high milk yields and is regarded as especially hardy and drought-resistant. To improve body weight and meat productivity, the Rashaida have begun to buy breeding stock from the neighbouring Lahaween tribe, whose larger camels are stronger-boned. These crosses are said to display hybrid vigour.

While the Rashaida's memory of their racing camels' pedigree goes back seven generations, they do not attempt to memorize similar information regarding their food-producing stock. In the latter case, selection is restricted to the male animals which are chosen according to the milk yields of their female relatives, good temper and conformation.

Survey area and Rashaida migratory range - Aire décrite et itinéraire migratoire des dromadaires Rashaida - Zona del estudio y alcance migratorio del camello Rashaida

Rashaida camels on a harvested durra field - Dromadaires Rashaida dans un champ de sorgho durra - Camellos Rashaida en un campo de durra cosechado

Mechanized sorghum farming

Although the Sudan has a large population of pastoral nomads, its fertile clay soils in the central plains have caused it to be regarded as a potential bread basket for the Arab world. With capital from international donors, in the late 1960s a programme was instituted for the large-scale, mechanized cultivation of durra (sorghum). Under this scheme, the Mechanized Farming Corporation leased large plots of land, mostly to urban entrepreneurs, and provided loans for the purchase of machinery.

During the course of cultivation, the land was stripped of its natural vegetation (shrubs were usually processed into charcoal) and the soil disc-ploughed and seeded. Although yields were initially high, exposure of the topsoil to deflation and erosion, combined with nutrient depletion in the absence of crop rotation schemes, led to drastic declines within just a few years. The cultivators then moved on to virgin plots and the process was repeated. The abandoned land- meanwhile became useless not only for cultivation, but also as grazing ground because of the destruction of the native vegetation. By the end of the 1970s, eight million feddans (approximately 3.2 million ha) had already come under cultivation (Shepherd, 1983). The attendant processes of desertification have been well-documented and shown to have led to a significant expansion of the desert to the south (Ibrahim, 1978).

Most of the land assigned for sorghum cultivation by the Mechanized Farming Corporation had previously been used by pastoralists to graze their animals. One of a number of pastoral groups whose grazing grounds were encroached upon is the Rashaida in the Kassala area of eastern Sudan. This tribe emigrated from Saudi Arabia to the Sudan in the last century and, because of their relatively recent arrival, their territorial rights have been regarded as tenuous at best. However, as specialized camel breeders, they have been able to adapt themselves surprisingly well to the expansion of sorghum cultivation into their grazing grounds. By utilizing sorghum byproducts to feed their camels, they not only contribute significantly to food output per hectare, but maintain themselves so well that they are viewed with some envy by the sedentary population as well as some other pastoralists because of their relative affluence.

Rashaida camel herd drinking At the Atbara River - Troupeau de dromadaires Rashaida s'abreuvant à la rivière Atbara - Manada de camellos Rashaida abrevando en el río Atbara

Camels At a watering hole - Dromadaires s'abreuvant à un point d'eau - Camellos en un abrevadero

The Rashaida pastoral system

Camels are the backbone of the Rashaida pastoralists' economy and are also central to their culture. Camel milk is a key ingredient in their diet and, since sorghum is their only other staple, it represents their almost exclusive source of protein and vitamins. Cash is received for male camels sold for slaughter at the age of six to seven years. They are collected at regular intervals into large herds and driven to the meat markets in Egypt, where they bring in profits ranging from LSd 7 000 to LSd 12 000, i.e. approximately US$600 to US$1000, per head. Some male animals are kept for riding and as beasts of burden for their migrations. A separate strain, the Anafi, is bred for the racing camel market in the Persian Gulf area, where prices reach up to LSd 1 million.

The Rashaida move in a north-south direction. The amplitude of their annual migrations varies from year to year depending on the amount of rainfall, but in a normal year the range is between 200 and 300 km. During the rainy season in June and July, they move northward to about 16°N (200 mm isohyet) to exploit the seasonally abundant forage. In years with abundant rainfall they may roam as far north as 18°N (100 mm isohyet). Milk production at this time is at its highest and is the most prevalent component of the diet. At the end of the rainy season, the Rashaida and their herds slowly drift southward to about 14°N (400 mm isohyet), or in exceptionally dry years they may reach 13°N (800 mm isohyet). This is a period of scarcity for both animals and humans, when forage and milk yields are at their lowest, and in drought years animals might die.

Since the arrival of mechanized farming, the durra stalks are able to tide the camel herds over the lean months. Durra stalks appear to be a nutritionally adequate type of fodder, thus ensuring a certain degree of security for the pastoral system. It must be emphasized that camels are the only domestic animals that can exploit this precarious ecological niche which has been artificially created by mechanized agriculture. Drinking spots are scarce in the area, and sheep and goats would be unable to move far enough from the few available water sources to utilize the vast expanses of harvested fields. Camels require watering approximately every six days, for which they are usually driven to the Atbara River. Furthermore, only camels are able to migrate far enough north during the rainy season to utilize the only remaining non-cultivated areas.

Also to be considered is the fact that the feeding of camels on sorghum stalks can have positive fertilizing effects on the soil while their soft-padded feet do not churn up the soil or contribute to erosion, as would the sharp hooves of small ruminants.

Survey of Rashaida camel productivity

In January 1990 a survey was carried out on the herd size, composition and state of health of the Rashaida camel, combined with a series of interviews with Rashaida camel owners. The results of this investigation challenge some long-held assumptions about camel reproduction and utilization, and illustrate the predicament of the Rashaida in the face of agricultural encroachment.

The Rashaida and most other camel pastoralists are not inclined to furnish details regarding the numbers of camels they own. In January, when grazing takes place on durra stalks, individual camel herds are pooled together to form huge conglomerates of several hundreds of animals, thus making it difficult to establish individual herd sizes and the average number of animals per household. An estimate, however, would be approximately 50 to 70 animals per household, of which 60 percent are breeding-age females. Females are bred for the first time at the age of four to five years, producing their first calves one year later. In dry years, when forage is scarce, maturity is delayed and first conception occurs at a later age. Under such circumstances the sexual activity of male animals is also depressed. This indicates that, although camel herds sustain fewer deaths during severe droughts than other types of livestock, they do suffer deferred effects, such as markedly lower calving rates in the following year. It also suggests that the low reproductive rates, which are frequently regarded as the great economic drawback of camels, are at least in part a sound and self-regulatory physiological adaptation that attunes their population sizes to fluctuating forage availability, preventing the overgrazing of resources.

The two seasons when breeding peaks are: the main one during and immediately after the rainy season, lasting from July to September; and another occurring in December and January. Generally, one breeding male is kept for 40 to 50 females but in larger herds there is more than one breeding male.

It is of interest that the Rashaida leave it to their stud males to establish their dominance. After a certain time, one of them becomes exhausted and is willingly superseded by his rival. Apparently no casualties occur, which is in contrast to what is reported from other camel pastoralists in the Sahara (Gauthier-Pilters and Dagg, 1981), but conforms with the natural behavioural patterns of their animals, as observed in feral herds in Australia (Klingel, 1985).

It is generally held that the normal calving intervals for camels is two years or more and that camels conceive no earlier than one year after giving birth. While this appears to be the prevailing pattern, the Rashaida point out that a minority of females actually become pregnant within two months of parturition, resulting in calving intervals as short as 14 to 15 months and some females reproducing almost every year. These observations suggest pronounced genetically determined fertility differentials between individuals and also indicate that the breeding seasons, in this geographical zone at least, are much less circumscribed than previously assumed.

On the other hand, it was found that herds also contained a number of older females that had never produced a living calf, or had given birth only once. Such animals are kept on, not out of a desire for large herds or for reasons of prestige, but because they often continue to produce milk, even without becoming pregnant again.

Milk yields were reported to be between 750 and 2 300 litres per year, with lactation usually continuing at the same level throughout the year.

It was evident that the- potential of the Rashaida herds for milk production is not systematically exploited and that, during most of the year, supply and demand do not concur. While in the rainy season there is more milk available than can be utilized, during the dry season milk yields do not satisfy household needs.

To some extent the Rashaida alleviate these discrepancies by processing milk that is not needed by the calf or for immediate human consumption into storable products. Unprocessed camel milk remains fit for consumption for four to five days, although its acidity increases significantly during this period. It can be processed into two different types of product with practically unlimited "shelf-life" by very simple procedures. Milk may be turned into butter (zibde) by shaking it in a goatskin or other container for about one hour. Through heating, zibde turns into zamin (clarified butter or ghee) which is then used as cooking fat or eaten with sorghum porridge or bread. The other milk product described by the Rashaida is madhur, made by boiling sour milk until it coagulates. The clotted substance is then drained through a piece of gauze, formed into balls and sun-dried. In this form milk stores for almost indefinite periods and can be reconstituted during droughts or the dry season by pulverizing and adding water. Since it is often held that camel milk does not lend itself to butter or cheese production, these practices of the Rashaida are noteworthy. However, because the women and smallstock are usually separated from the camel herds during the rainy season when milk yields are abundant, only a small proportion of the milk is processed.

Mastitis frequently interferes with milk production. Its incidence appears to be unusually high among Rashaida camels. Most often it occurs in animals whose offspring have died, so it may be attributable to insufficient milking.

As frequently reported in traditional camel pastoral systems, the incidence of calf losses is quite high. Diarrhoea occurs frequently and often leads quickly to death. The Rashaida, as do other pastoral groups, withhold most of the colostrum in the belief that an excess is harmful for the calf. This assumption would appear to be erroneous to an outside observer, and to some extent could explain the high rate of neonatal deaths.

In all other respects, the veterinary knowledge of the Rashaida is impressive. They identify 30 or more different camel diseases and afflictions and resort to a variety of traditional therapies for their treatment (Köhler-Rollefson, Musa and Fadl Achmed, 1991). Among the most common diseases are trypanosomiasis (ghuffar), mange (jerab), pneumonia (haboob), camel pox (ghedderi), contagious skin necrosis (na'aita) and ringworm (ghoob). Western medications are hardly ever available.

Altogether, the Rashaida camels appeared to be in good health and excellent condition, doubtless because of the ample availability of feed in the form of durra byproducts. Access to harvested durra fields, however, does not come cheaply. In 1-989, to keep 100 camels on sorghum stalks from January to July, owners paid about LSd 50 000 (approximately US$4 000 at that time) and a household normally needs to sell three or four camels to pay for this privilege. Additional problems regularly occur just before the sorghum harvest when it becomes difficult for herders to prevent their animals from damaging the crop. This is especially so in dry years when natural forage is quickly depleted, and it requires considerable labour to keep the camels away from the fields. The situation is exacerbated by the frequently random spread of cultivation, which often results in grazing areas being encircled by cultivated fields. Punishments levied against crop damage are harsh.

Ecological considerations

Large-scale mechanized monocropping is an agricultural production technique which initially yields high returns but, subsequently, productivity declines quickly and dramatically. Monetary returns of camel husbandry are low but, on the other hand, it is an ecologically sound, long-term, sustainable strategy for arid land exploitation. Scientists have presented evidence that camel grazing is beneficial for range vegetation (Gauthier-Pilters, 1984) and it appears likely that camel husbandry might retard some of the ecologically destructive effects of monocropping in sensitive environments.

The Rashaida constitute an interesting example of the spontaneous integration of camel pastoralism with agriculture, and their system is worthy of closer examination. It is clear that the productivity of camel husbandry could be increased significantly, particularly under these circumstances. Because of the huge herd sizes, potential milk yields by far exceed the demands of young camels and the pastoralists themselves. If the Rashaida could be induced to process camel milk into durable products, possibly in exchange for veterinary services, for example, they would make a significant contribution to human nutritional requirements in a part of the Sudan that is severely strained by a large population of refugees from Eritrea and other war zones in the region.


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