The wild camel (Camelus ferus) is a critically endangered animal residing in very remote and inhospitable areas of Mongolia and parts of China adjacent to or in the Gobi Desert. There are less than 1000 surviving with numbers declining each year due to environmental and human pressures. Scientists at the Institute of Population Genetics at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna have recently confirmed the two-humped wild camel to be a separate species from the domestic two-humped Bactrian or single-humped Dromedary camels. Their ancestral lineage diverged from the common ancestors of current camels 700,000 years before current camel species developed.
The Gobi Desert is one of the world’s largest deserts, stretching across North Central Asia in southeast Mongolia and northern China. This great stony desert consists of a series of shallow alkaline basins situated on a plateau at an altitude between 3000 and 5000 feet. Permanent water sources in the Gobi are now scarce. Nearly all of the topsoil has been blown away by the prevailing northwestern winds and the landscape varies from mountainous to stony plains with sparse vegetation and vast areas of flat parched desert devoid of vegetation. The particularly harsh Taklamakan Desert straddles Mongolia and China and served as the Chinese nuclear test site for 45 years because people cannot live there. Amazingly, the wild camels not only survived 43 aerial nuclear tests but have bred naturally without apparent effects. No, they do not have 3 humps!
In this hostile environment, the wild camels have adapted to drinking salt water slush because of the scarcity of fresh water, intriguing scientists about how the camels eliminate the salt and use the water. Domestic Bactrian camels will not drink salt water and this adaptation to saline fluid is unique among large terrestrial animals.
We journeyed to join John Hare, the founder of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF) dedicated to preserving these unusual animals. These camels had been noted over the years to emerge in mating season to attempt to breed with domestic camels. The WCPF established a wild camel captive breeding program in 2004 with an embryo transfer program under the guidance of scientists experienced in camel breeding programs in Dubai and Kenya. DNA samples have been used to determine the camel lineage and to ensure that the camels in the breeding program are pure wild camels.
John is a very articulate, absolutely entertaining British naturalist who is highly passionate about the wild camel since he became one of the first westerners to visit this remote area in search of them. He is devoted to their preservation and needs to raise money each year to feed and raise young camels. This year there will be 7 new additions to the population!
The trip to the breeding station involved arriving in Ulan Bataar (UB), the Mongolian capitol containing around one third of the 3 million inhabitants in a country one sixth the size of the continental US. UB is changing rapidly with the influx of mining capital and resembles a western frontier town in modern days. Three days and 800 miles after leaving UB in the Russian equivalent of land rovers, we arrived at the Taklamakan breeding station and I was thrilled to be on foot in a large enclosure about 30 feet away from one of these rare animals. They really look different than Bactrians with much lighter coloration, pointed humps, and flat heads.
A highlight was a 2 day camel trip to a sacred mountain area. You would think the Gobi is dry being a desert (and it is) but it rained biblically for 3 days during this side adventure. The mandated day of rest in a dry, warm ger (the Mongolian term for yurt) was sorely needed….literally, as my backside was rubbed raw by the saddle.
We welcomed the return to UB and a hot shower and cooking other than our own. Our Hong Kong stay after Mongolia reintroduced us to civilization in a big way, a much-deserved rest before heading back to the US.
Please visit the website for the wild camel to learn more about these fascinating animals and the programs to preserve them