Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD-IS)

Bactrian Camels- An Invaluable Resource of the Gobi Desert


The Gobi Desert of Southern Mongolia and Northern China is one of the harshest environments in the world. Temperatures there can drop below -40ºC at night and rise as high as 50ºC during the day. Despite these extremes, Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) thrive here because of their coats, which grow “long and thick” during the winter months and “short and thin” during summer months. This adaptive trait has made them invaluable to the nomadic herders that reside in this desolate region (FAO, 2010). In fact, Bactrian camels are the only large animals that are suitable for livestock production in this region. The Bactrian camel can live up to 40 years and are essential for providing clothing, sustenance from milk, and transportation for many people of the region. Bactrian camel wool also has many beneficial properties. In addition to providing excellent insulation in extreme weather conditions, the wool has hypoallergenic properties, does not form small balls of fiber that are common on many knit products, and can be found naturally in a large variety of different colours. In addition to these favourable economic and textile qualities, Bactrian camels have an indispensable role in the environment and ecosystem of the Gobi. They eat a shrub known as the “Saxaul” and their manure helps to spread the seeds of the shrub, creating new Saxaul forests. This ecosystem service helps to prevent further desertification, which is a mounting environmental issue in the Gobi. Saxaul forests are key in reducing wind erosion, maintaining moisture in the air and in protecting other plants from the wind. Moreover, the shrubs are prone to over harvesting for firewood, making the camel’s role in spreading forests that much more critical.

Despite their vital importance to both the people of the Gobi and the desert itself, the number of camels in Mongolia has declined significantly in the past half-century, from over 900,000 in 1950 to only 250,000 by 2002. This decline has partially resulted from government policy in the 1990’s that put limited on the number of livestock animals that could be owned in a household. This policy did not improve the conditions of widespread poverty and famine prevalent throughout the country during that time. With few other options, many Mongolians opted to use camels for human consumption despite camel’s long held taboo status for this purpose. Realizing the camel’s essential role to life in Mongolia, the national government has now started to implement programs, such as in the Gurvantes District, that monetarily rewards camel herders for every new calf born and promotes awareness of the need for conservation. As of 2007, the camel population has ceased to decline because of programmes like the monetary reward system. These government programmes, along with other international efforts by non-government organizations ensure the future of the camels and the people who rely on them.

Sources: LPP, LIFE Network, IUCN–WISP and FAO. 2010. Adding value to livestock diversity – Marketing to promote local breeds and improve livelihoods. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper. No. 168. Rome.

Photo Credit: DAD-IS

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