The author is President of the Yak and Camel Foundation, PO Box 10, 25350 Krempe. His address is Stiftstr. 17, 25361 Krempe, Germany.
Note: This report was compiled after several visits to Inner and Outer Mongolia from 1993 to 1996. In 1987 and 1988, the author spent several weeks at the Dromedary Research Station in Bikaner, India.
Camels are considered to be descended from the wild camel (Camelus ferus przewalski). The genus Camelus is thought to have migrated from America to Eurasia in the Pleistocene age. A distinction is made between the one-humped dromedary and Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius), the camel of the plains, and the two-humped or bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus), the camel of the mountains. (The word bactrianus comes from Bactria, a kingdom at the foot of the Hindu Kush Mountains of ancient Persia.) These large camels are also known as Old World camels, while the small humpless camels native to the Andes in South America are referred to as New World camels. There are several species of these small camels: the domesticated llama and alpaca and their wild forms, the vicuña and the guanaco. Unlike the large camels, they are remarkably proficient climbers. This ability was of inestimable value to the Incas, who used the llama on their transport route across the terraced mountains of the Andes.
The purpose of this study is to give an overview of the bactrian camel as a multipurpose livestock species. In view of the dramatic decline in the population of bactrian camels, particularly over the last few decades, the study also serves as an appeal to scientists to ensure the survival of this endangered species beyond the next millennium.The world population of small Old World camels is estimated to be 7 million.
The genus Camelus, like the genus Lama, belongs to the suborder Tylopodahich, which in turn belongs to the order Artiodactyla. A distinguishing feature of the tylopods, as the name suggests, is the structure of the foot. Tylopods walk on the tips of their hooves, and not on the soles of their feet like other ungulates. Unlike the llama, the camel has both toes fused together to form a common sole, and this prevents the animal from sinking in the desert sand. The horny pads are another distinguishing feature and are particularly pronounced in the two-humped camel. They are flat, leathery, localized pads on the volar carpal surface, elbows, knee region and sternal region, and they enable the camel to lie down on hard, uneven surfaces without injuring its skin or the underlying muscles. The pads also protect the camel from burning itself on the hot sand. Camels lack a stifle fold, which is a stretch of skin that connects the abdominal region with the thigh. The absence of the stifle fold is very important because the air can circulate under the abdomen from one side of the body to the other when the animal is lying down. Without the stifle fold, it is also much easier for the camels to walk, and they can use their limbs with great precision within a large radius.
While the dromedary (of which there are 17 million) inhabits Africa, southwest Asia and south Asia, more than 90 percent of the habitat of the bactrian camel lies in Inner Mongolia (China), Outer Mongolia (Gobi Desert) and the desert steppes of Kazakhstan.
The dromedary is known as the camel of the plains because it has great difficulty in travelling through mountainous regions. The two-humped mountain camel mainly inhabits the mountains of central Asia at altitudes of up to 2 000 m. In exceptional circumstances it can also cross passes at higher altitudes, even when they are covered in snow. Cave paintings suggest that the bactrian camel was domesticated in Mongolia during the Neolithic age (3000 to 1800 bc).
Today, the wild form of the bactrian camel (about 10 000 animals) is found exclusively in the Gobi Desert. Feral dromedaries are found only in Australia, where camels imported from Africa were released into the wild last century after the introduction of the motor car.
Unlike the dromedary, which generates a great deal of scientific interest, the bactrian camel has so far been largely neglected by scientists in the western world. Given the extreme climate and inordinate language problems (Chinese, Mongolian and Russian), only very few western scientists have been willing to conduct their research on the spot. In order to rectify this situation, the Yak and Camel Foundation, which was set up in Germany several years ago, has taken up intensive research activities in Mongolia on the subject of camels. The aim of this research is to study the behaviour, nutrition and health of the mountain camel and, ultimately, to compile scientific documentation on this topic.
(2 000 to 2 500 hours of sunshine per year) and cold winters with temperatures as low as -40°C. Desert steppes are tree
less grass plains where the vegetation primarily consists of more or less long grasses, depending on the humidity, bulbous plants and perennials. During prolonged drought, the steppes can develop into thorn bush plains. The vegetation in the steppes predominantly comprises common saltwort and shrubs that can be utilized optimally only by camels. It is thanks to their anatomy that they are able to feed on thorny plants rich in raw fibre. Their split upper lip and long tongue, which is lined with a thick pavement epithelium, enables them to pluck leaves from thorn bushes without incurring injury.
The camel, particularly the bactrian camel, needs to ingest large quantities of salt. This dietary requirement may have developed during the course of the animal's adaptation to the desert steppes, where brackish water and halo-phytes with a high salt content can often be found. We know from Mongolian sources that camels are particularly fond of salt lakes and grazing land with a high salt content where they can ingest as much salt as they like. The bactrian camel's daily salt requirement, obtained from saline plants and brackish water, is estimated to be between 60 and 120 g. A golden rule, according to Mongolians, is that camels must be given an extra supply of salt on long journeys. The white efflorescence, called "gudschir", which is found on the ground of the desert steppes, plays a major role in the mineral balance of the camels. When they have access to saline plants, camels refuse all other food. They become emaciated if their diet lacks salt, even if there is a large supply of salt-free food available. The animals look weak, their two fatty humps shrink to one-third of their original size and they can no longer transport heavy loads over long distances.
The two humps of the bactrian camel are about 25 to 35 cm high. Their
function is not, as is often mistakenly assumed, to store water but to
store energy. Unlike the elastic hump of the dromedary, the two humps of
the bactrian camel are largely inflexible, so that they flop over to one
side once all the fat reserves have been depleted. The breakdown of fat
always starts in the caudal hump. Each fatty hump contains around 25 to
35 kg of fat, which is equivalent to a calorie reserve of 250 000 to 350
000 kcal. The appearance of the two humps (firm and full or flaccid) is
an indicator of the nutritional state of the camel. The humps contain most
of the body fat. The subcutaneous connective tissue is largely fat-free,
which facilitates the release of redundant body heat.
The bactrian camel herd studied in Outer Mongolia
Troupeau de chameaux étudiés en Mongolie extérieure
El hato de camellos bactrianos estudiado en Mongolia Exterior
Male bactrian camels, whose temperament can generally be described as indifferent, become unpredictable and aggressive towards humans during the rutting season. The camel's upper incisor and its canines (two diastemas), which are particularly pronounced in the bactrian camel, are exposed, so that the large hooked teeth act as dangerous weapons. The distended soft palate, which is the size of a tennis ball, protrudes from the animal's mouth. It grinds its teeth and large quantities of foam can be seen in the oral cleft. A considerable loss of appetite is observed, and sometimes the animals stop feeding altogether. A dark, foul-smelling substance is secreted from between the ears. The hind legs are splayed so that the tail can strike the penis. The animals also urinate more frequently, and the urine is sprinkled across the body by movements of the tail, which gives rise to a smell of urine. When it comes to copulation, the female lies on her stomach so that the male always serves in a sitting position. Copulation lasts from several minutes to half an hour, and in exceptional cases up to three ejaculations have been observed. It is not unusual for a bull to serve the same cow several times on a given day if there are no other available cows in oestrus.
The rate of conception is between 45 and 55 percent (twin births are thought to make up less than 1 percent). Pregnancy can be detected from the 45th to the 50th day by rectal examination, and is visible externally six to seven months after copulation. The gestation period is between 13 and 14 months, and the involution of the uterus is completed 45 to 50 days after delivery. The mother sniffs the newborn calf but does not lick it. In the first week of the calf's life, maternal care is particularly intensive because the animal must learn how to walk and suck. Newborn two-humped camels weigh between 35 and 45 kg. Their bodies are covered with long, thin wool hair that acts as protective blanket on the surface of the body.
· milk production;
· meat production;
· wool production;
· working capacity as a riding and pack animal;
· source of fuel from dried dung.
7 percent). The milk of bactrian camels generally has a higher fat content than that of dromedaries, which means that it also has a higher caloric content. It contains 5 percent lactose and 4 to 5 percent protein, of which the lion's share (75 to 80 percent) is casein. It should be pointed out, however, that the components of camel milk do not remain constant; they depend on the season and the vegetation. The author was able to see for himself that the shelf-life of camel milk differs greatly from that of cow milk. At a summer temperature of 40°C, camel milk retains its typical odour for up to 12 hours. During this time the milk does not turn sour, whereas cow milk turns sour after only two to three hours. At temperatures below 10°C, camel milk can be stored for up to 60 hours without souring and, therefore, without loss of quality.
The milk is fermented to make a sour-tasting drink called "schubat". The method for making this drink is similar to the process used to make "kumys" from cow milk. In addition to "schubat", camel milk is used to make butter, cheese, curd and yoghurt. "Schubat" is also administered to both humans and animals to treat diseases of the respiratory or digestive systems. The same applies to rachitic diseases in young children. There are no major problems with mastitis. The diseased quarter is treated purely by frequent milking so that no drugs are required. According to Russian data, 10 to 15 percent of camels in Kazakhstan are chronically infected with Brucella abortus. The author is not aware of any studies on Brucella abortus in Mongolia or China.
Camel meat production is described below using the example of Kazakhstan. While dromedary farmers in East Africa often specialize in milk and meat production, there is relatively little meat production in Kazakhstan. The slaughter yield of bactrian camels is between 50 and 60 percent, and the fat content is estimated at 8 to 18 percent. The energy content per kg meat is 1 200 to 1 200 kcal. The slaughter animals are divided into three groups: adult camels (more than three years old); juvenile camels (one to two years old); and calves (less than one year old).
In terms of consistency, bactrian camel meat is similar to beef. It
is eaten both fresh and dried. In Kazakhstan, camels are slaughtered in
October and November, the timing being largely determined by the declining
availability of grazing land. Following the winter months, the slaughter
animals are grouped together according to age and sex and taken to grazing
land in the steppes. This land provides the best feeding basis for the
animals. They stay there until October or November. According to camel
owners, the daily weight gain during the grazing season is 800 to 900 g
in juveniles and 600 to 650 g in adult animals. By the end of this "fattening"
period, a large mass of fat has accumulated in the two humps, each of which
weighs 25 to 35 kg. Unlike North and East Africa, the Arabian Gulf states
and Saudi Arabia, where there is a strong buyer's market for camel meat
of any quality, the demand in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China is of minor
importance, which is naturally reflected in the pricing.
Animals under study in the compound
Animaux à l'étude dans un enclos
Los animales objeto de estudio en su recinto
The examples below illustrate the economic and military importance of the two-humped mountain camel. Marco Polo's travel reports infer that, for hundreds of years, silks were transported along the famous Silk Road from China to Europe exclusively by camel. Another point worth mentioning is that Genghis Khan and his commanders used mobile camel residences (command centres). These dwellings could be built up and taken down in a day, and a total of 500 to 1 000 camels were used to transport each dwelling. Apparently more than 1 million military camels were constantly used during the Mongolian campaigns to carry the necessary supplies of clothes, provisions and war material for the cavalries in the Mongolian empire, which stretched from the China Sea to Europe - very impressive logistics, even by today's standards. The only drawback to the camel transport system was that no large campaigns could be carried out in the summer rainy season. Mongolian camels have also played a major role in the twentieth century, and they may even have had a decisive impact on the Japanese-led war between the empire of Manchukuo and the Mongolian People's Republic. In autumn 1939, this war was won by the Mongolians and their Russian allies because they had large numbers of pack camels, while the Japanese used motor vehicles and were thus reliant on difficult fuel supplies. (The Russian waiver of reparations led to the pact of non-aggression between the Russians and the Japanese, which in turn was of considerable importance to the outcome of the Second World War.)
Camels are also used to transport yurts (circular tents), called "yurt" in Russian and "ger" in Mongolian, of which there are still hundreds in the Gobi Desert. Yurts have a circular sliding lattice grate made of wooden poles with flat, rod-shaped bars placed on top to form the roof. The roof bars are covered with felt blankets and are always lined with carpets or, in exceptional cases, grass mats. The smoke from the fire set up in the middle of the tent is released through a smoke outlet in the roof. Yurts are usually from 2 to 3 m high and about 8 m in diameter. They can be dismantled within a few hours and transported to another site on the backs of two or three camels. Yurts provide optimum protection from the heat in summer and the cold in winter.
Working animals are primarily bulls or castrated males of at least four years old. Their working capacity reaches its peak at the age of seven to eight years. The camels designated for work purposes receive intensive training at the age of three to four, and are fitted with a wooden nose ring. Male pack camels are usually castrated at the age of two to three. According to verbal records, working camels can be used for 15 to 20 years. As a rule, adult camels can carry a load of about 40 percent of their body weight, which is double the potential of the juvenile animals. Since the average weight of a male camel is about 600 kg and that of a female is about 400 to 500 kg, the load capacity amounts to 200 to 240 kg and 150 to 200 kg, respectively. During the summer months camels travel from 4 to 6 km per hour, while in the winter months they can cover 8 to 10 km per hour. On journeys lasting for several weeks, camels cover a distance of approximately 30 to 40 km per day. On shorter journeys, lasting less than a week, they cover 80 to 100 km per day. In exceptional circumstances, bulls are able to walk more than 120 km in a single day, provided that they have a whole day to rest afterwards.
It is clear from the above information that the desert steppes of central Asia, which stretch over 1.5 to 2 million km2, could not be used by humans if it were not for the bactrian camel. Consequently, there is an urgent need for fundamental studies on the behaviour, nutrition and health of this endangered species, with a special emphasis on parasitological problems. Happily, the opening up of the central Asian states and China from a political point of view has now created favourable conditions for scientists to carry out research studies on the spot.