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Making more of the market for camel milk

Distinctive, affordable and full of health-supporting nutrients, that's camel milk. It may be an acquired taste but, if there was a league of camel milk consumption worldwide, one country would come near the top - Kazakhstan. Kazakhs each drink about 140 litres of camel milk a year, and they like it fresh or fermented in what is called schubat. "Throughout the country, I have found that people really believe that it has special powers," says camel researcher, Gaukhar Konuspayeva of the University Al Farabi in the capital Almaty.

Hand milking yields an average of 4-6 litres of milk a day
Hand milking yields an average of 4-6 litres of milk a day

There are currently just under a 100,000 camels in Kazakhstan, though once there were more. At the turn of last century there were more than a million camels in the country; that was before the process of collectivisation, a series of famines, and the break-up of the USSR, with its subsequent privatisation, reduced the camel population. Most of the camels in the country belong to smallholders, and since 2002 there has been a slight increase in numbers. The current challenge is how to help these producers improve the quality of the milk they sell and process.

More than 80 per cent of the camels in Kazakhstan are the double-humped Camelus bactrianus. With their fine physique and shaggy coats, the Bactrian camels are famous for their meat and hair, whilst milk production is higher in the dromedary or single-humped breeds. In her research into milk production Konuspayeva found great variation in yield. "With hand milking between two and four times a day, 4-6 litres daily is average during 12-18 months of lactation. But with the Arvana dromedary breed from Turkmenistan, daily productivity can reach more than 10 litres," she notes.

Far from the market

Grazing on unimproved vegetation over the vast steppes of Kazakhstan, camels are often far from the market for milk and milk products, and facilities to keep milk fresh are few and far between. This is why traditional processing into fermented milk or kourt - a kind of camel cheese - is common. Indeed, such is the popularity of traditional products that large-scale operators, such as the Agromekur factory in Almaty, are investing heavily in camel dairy processing.

Processors prefer, understandably, to have consistency in quality but due to the effect of breed, feed and the season of the year, the quality of the milk - and thus the milk products - may be very varied. Konuspayeva has been sampling camel milk from four locations across the 180 million hectares of natural pasture in Kazakhstan. "Fat and protein content of fresh milk vary hugely. So can the quantities of minerals, such as iron and calcium," she observes.

"I would not want to see all local variations in products disappear but I would like to help farmers to produce milk which will get them a fair and consistent price," continues Konuspayeva. "If they want to succeed on the national market, let alone the international market, which is growing as consumers hear about the health-giving properties of camel milk, farmers may have to adjust some of their methods." With further research, it is expected that affordable interventions could be recommended, such as altering grazing management or specific supplementary feeding at certain points during lactation that may help with milk quality and quantity. Another concern is that some of the camel herding is concentrated in regions that have become polluted with heavy metal contaminants from industry and radio-nuclides from nuclear weapons testing. "There's no question, the products have to be safe," adds Konuspayeva.

Many camel farmers are ambitious to improve incomes and they want to produce more for the free market that has opened up since Kazakhstan won independence. But as yet there is no national standard for camel milk or milk products, which would help the sector to develop. Many Kazakhs refer to camel milk as 'magic milk' and self-prescribe it for a number of illnesses from diarrhoea to tuberculosis. "It is not true to say that camel milk is magical," says Konuspayeva, "but I do think that we can say that it is a rejuvenant and energy-giving! More research on camel milk is essential in order to understand all its constituents and properties to promote - or even restore - health. And to help those farming communities, who have perfected camel-keeping in Kazakhstan for generations, to make more from it."

Date published: January 2005


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Really camel milk is more nutrtious. There is lot of potenti... (posted by: Sagar)


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