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The 21st century camel

<em>Camelicious</em> is the world's first large-scale camel dairy farm (© Alicia Sully/WTYSL)
Camelicious is the world's first large-scale camel dairy farm
© Alicia Sully/WTYSL

Intensive camel farming, mechanised milking, camel milk chocolate, frothy camelcinos and strawberry-flavoured camel milk, all from a 2,000-strong herd of calm, friendly, well-behaved camels? Not quite the picture of Bedouin desert nostalgia you'd expect from a camel farm in the desert. Emirate's Industry for Camel Milk and Products, better known as Camelicious, does things a little differently. The world's first large-scale camel dairy farm, on the outskirts of Dubai, has everything, from milking camels to camel milk processing, testing, and distribution all under one roof.

Brainchild of Dr Ulrich Wernery, founder of Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL), the aim of Camelicious is commercialising a product used for centuries by Bedouin people, to combat the high prevalence of diabetes in the local community. Although studies on camel milk's ability to treat the disease have hardly been comprehensive, traditional knowledge has long recognised camel milk's ability to combat diabetes, among a host of other ailments. "People here lived before the oil boom with camels in the desert. They were the toughest people on earth, surviving 55 degrees heat in the shade, only on camel milk and dates," says Dr Ulli. This challenging lifestyle altered completely within one generation when oil was discovered. Now diabetes occurs in 30 per cent of the local population.

Training camels for milking

Owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, this project has become the most hi-tech camel milk dairy in the world. The dairy currently has 150 workers managing 2,200 camels, 600 to 700 of which are milked twice daily. Milking is fully automated and milking machinery is adapted for the irregularity in the size of camel teats. Around 5,000 litres per day travels underground to be stored in a cooling tank before being processed. With so many camels to be milked twice a day, Camelicious has come up with something else that has proved unique in the camel world. "We have trained more than 2,000 animals," says Dr Jutka Juhasz, head veterinarian at Camelicious. "Our goal is that all the animals are relaxed and easily handled in the milking parlour. So far we have never ejected a camel because it was unable to learn or accept this technology." Dr Jutka, who has been involved in the farm since its inception, considers camels to be intelligent, displaying an even wider range of emotions than horses, her previous specialisation.

Camels are milked twice a day (© Alicia Sully/WTYSL)
Camels are milked twice a day
© Alicia Sully/WTYSL

Training the camels is central to the smooth functioning of Camelicious as twice daily camels file into specially designed pens and allow themselves to be milked without the presence of their calf. This is contrary to traditional methods, which require the presence of a calf to stimulate secretion of milk. Unlike cows and goats, camel milk travels down the mammary vein to the udder when needed, a survival tactic for life in the harsh and dry environment of the desert. This advancement has revolutionised camel milking in terms of time, space and manpower.

Contrasts with bovine management

The structures employed in modern intensive bovine farming are antithesis to CVRL and Camelicious principles. "The whole policy was that we didn't want to turn these animals into intensive humpy milking machines," Dr Jutka stresses. The UAE has seven bovine dairy farms which Dr Ulli is not shy to condemn: "I'm completely against it, because if you go there in summer it is 50 degrees in the shade. These cows suffer." Cows are either sprinkled with water, a precious commodity in the desert, or kept in costly air-conditioned halls. Camels, on the other hand, bask in the sunshine and on the hot sand. They are, however, fed alfalfa imported from New Zealand.

In the farm compound calves are kept in pens next to their mothers, with pregnant females kept a short drive away in a separate enclosure. Another aspect is exercise on a four kilometre walking track. "The walking track is very important because camels are naturally freely roaming animals," says Dr Jutka. The track gives the camels up to an hour of exercise every day, if they choose it. Some prefer just to roll around in the sand.

Research for the future

Pasteurised camel milk will keep for 14 days (© Alicia Sully/WTYSL)
Pasteurised camel milk will keep for 14 days
© Alicia Sully/WTYSL

With two strong research laboratories backing the farm there is an opportunity to add weight to the myriad claims of camel milk. "We are in a luxurious situation that we have such a large number of animals and all our data on milking, feeding, and milk composition is recorded," says Dr Juhasz. One thing already established is the longer shelf life of the milk: when pasteurised the milk will keep for 14 days, if not three weeks, in the fridge without any deterioration. "The taste on the first day is exactly the same at 21 days," says Dr Ulli. Looking to export markets, the dairy underwent inspection by EU officials in January 2011 to ascertain whether production standards are up to the strict import rules.

After just five years the camel dairy in Dubai is still finding its feet but there is hope that lessons learned can be transferred to other communities and replicated on a smaller scale with less investment. FAO's milk and dairy expert, Anthony Bennet, says that FAO is promoting camels as a means of food security in smallscale farms; one project in Afghanistan has seen daily incomes triple due to camel milk production and local sale. "That's why we are encouraging people, government, communities to look at camel milk and dairy products as one of those pathways out of poverty," explains Bennet. For Camelicious farm manager, Peter Nagy, hi-tech is not the only way: "We have a small training facility", he says, "where we use less sophisticated equipment. For small farmers, what we do there is something they could use also."

The What Took You So Long Foundation film team has travelled to 17 countries documenting the camel milk industry. Follow them on Facebook

Written by: Philippa Young, The What Took You So Long Foundation

Date published: March 2011

 

Have your say

Camel milk is unique and solution to complexities of human h... (posted by: Dr Abdul Raziq)

Quite exciting. It would be good to get more economic facts ... (posted by: Osman Alla)

I think that the name "what took you so long" says it all. ... (posted by: Eva)

 

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