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Kenyan camels thrive where cattle cannot

Camel meat is just one of the products for sale
Camel meat is just one of the products for sale

On 7th Street in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh business is brisk in camel meat and milk. Until recently sales were mainly to the Somali community settled in the Kenyan capital but, increasingly, there are Kenyan customers. "Before I never thought of eating camel meat," says city professional, Eric Kadenge, "but it tastes good and is not a bad price." Meat fetches US$2/kg, while milk costs around US$1.50/litre; but these are not the only camel products being sold. Hides go for curing and bones are cleaned up ready for sale to manufacturers of cutlery.

Eighteen kilometres south of Nairobi, in the dry open land of Athi River, camel herder Abdi Salat seeks some respite from the noonday sun. In the shade of a thorny shrub he oversees the camels that graze scattered around him. "Now only a third of the herd remains. There are just eighteen left to go," he explains. "Each day I walk as many as ten camels to the slaughterhouse near here." Does he feel that sales are good? "Most definitely. Before 2002, Kenyans didn't eat much camel meat but now they do. The value of camels is very good."

The market is so good that, in a few days' time Salat will travel north to meet up with the next batch of meat camels - 270 of them - that, for five weeks, have been making their way from the northern Kenyan town of Moyale on the Ethiopian border.

It is not only profits that are breathing new life into the camel business. So is climate change. Repeated drought has hit the traditional keeping of cattle in East Africa and the pastoralist communities that rely on them. According to Ali Mohammed Hassan, of the Kenyan office of the development organisation FARM-Africa, this means that more cattle communities are becoming interested in raising camels. "Camels survive water shortages much better and can thrive on wild grazing that cannot keep cattle alive."

New to camels

The Samburu pastoralists of northern Kenya were the first to take up camel-keeping in the country. Now the Maasai are following in their footsteps. Dr Jacob Wanyama, a veterinarian and pastoral specialist with the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), understands the reservations that cattle-keepers have about making the switch. "But once experienced livestock-keepers see how well they do, especially the high yielding milk-camels introduced from Pakistan," he says, "then that reluctance begins to disappear." In Kenya, as well as this newest breed, there are four others: the large Somali, the smaller and darker Rendille and the Turkana, which is the smallest of all.

Given the rising prominence of camels in Kenya it seems extraordinary that they are barely included in development policy. Nor are they mentioned in the National Livestock Act. Year by year the pressure builds to change that. The Kenya Camel Association - composed of commercial camel ranchers, representatives of camel communities and those working to help them - holds an annual Camel Forum to discuss issues such as diseases, milk and meat production and marketing. It is believed that Kenyan camels - which exceed 900,000 in number - are capable of producing 350 million litres of milk and 10,000 tonnes of meat a year. To tap that potential KCA calls for more services to camel-keeping communities to improve camel health and husbandry as well as promotion of camel products and clear regulatory standards for camel products such as milk and meat.

Camel herder, Abdi Salat, with one of his herd
Camel herder, Abdi Salat, with one of his herd

In those parts of Kenya worst affected by persistent drought the next generation of pastoralists is growing up with a greater understanding of the camel's role. According to Mohammed Hassan, efforts to introduce school children to camel-keeping are going well. With camels on the curriculum, and kept within the school grounds, pupils learn camel care and how best to hygienically collect, process and market the milk.

Back at Athi River, Abdi Salat is modest about the skills he has. "Camels have good hearing," he explains gently stroking the fine under-neck hair of a huge male. "That's why we work with voice command as well as touch." As well as this mutual dependency between herder and camel there is clearly mutual respect as well. "If the camel survives, I survive. You have to know what they need right from when they are in the womb to birth and right up to death. Until the last moment we are together. I can be with them for years and then I accompany one for slaughter. I give it my thanks and then I leave. It is hard to be there at the very end."

There is a long-held belief in many of parts of Kenya that camels bring drought. In fact, as is gradually being realised, it is drought that is likely to increase the numbers of camels being kept - to the benefit of consumers and livestock-keepers alike.

Date published: January 2005

 

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