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Cashing in on camels

Camel racing (Setlem V. Rangaiah)
Camel racing
Setlem V. Rangaiah

In many countries the ungainly camel, and those who live and work with them, are relegated to the margins of usefulness. But there are regions of the world where the 'ships of the desert' are more highly prized than ever, and have become the source of huge wealth and increasing prestige: states where the racing camel challenges the horse. Though far removed from agriculture, these elite herds are contributing to the science, skills and bloodstock that will benefit the more everyday herds kept for their agricultural utility.

Traditionally, policymakers have seen camels as old, out-dated and destructive to vegetation. They have been linked with under-development. But this is no longer true. "Camels have an important place in the 21st century. In fact I'd say they are becoming more important," says Professor Babiker Elhag Musa, who oversees the breeding and management of more than 400 camels at the Camel Breeding Centre of the Royal Camel Corps of the Sultan of Oman. "A prime racing camel is worth US$100,000-250,000. We are also breeding camels for ceremonial events. They carry musicians, with drums on either side - as many as forty in a band - and we train them to move in certain ways."

The spectacle of military parades or of diminutive jockeys atop camels moving at speed at race meetings is gaining popularity in the Middle East and beyond: recently, Australia launched camel racing events of up to seven kilometres. And marathon events, where camels race with horses over a 40 kilometre course, have also been introduced. The stakes are high and owners compete for lucrative prizes. Consequently, breeders are introducing techniques long-used with other farm animals to breed the camel for speed, strength and temperament. The same could be done for more prosaic purposes, to improve the yield of milk, meat, hide, hair and pulling power.

Applying modern technologies

Artificial insemination of camels is now used routinely in Oman and other Gulf states (Setlem V. Rangaiah)
Artificial insemination of camels is now used routinely in Oman and other Gulf states
Setlem V. Rangaiah

Artificial insemination, previously thought to be ineffective in camels as ovulation is usually only stimulated after natural mating, is now used routinely in Oman and other Gulf states. According to Professor Musa, as little as 1 millilitre of semen or an injection of luteinising hormone will stimulate ovulation and prompt the release of a ripe egg from the ovary. "We have also begun to use frozen embryos," says Musa. "In the breeding season we find that many females are naturally synchronised to be on heat together. We can stimulate ovulation and the next day transfer embryos from superior females into foster females." Although, to date, the success rate with fertilised embryos is not as successful as conventional artificial insemination, the adaptation of such technology into camel breeding is accelerating the rate at which animals can be bred with specific desired characteristics.

Other long-standing reproductive challenges are also being tackled by modern techniques. A technician, holding a battery-powered ultrasound emitter against a cow camel's side, can get an instant on-screen reading of the health and condition of the ovulatory follicle: camels are prone to follicle cysts, which interfere with fertility but, if diagnosed, can be easily treated (by aspiration) so that the camel can conceive. Ultrasound can also confirm the optimum time for artificial insemination. Meanwhile, in Australia, camels scientists are developing a technique to sex semen and fertilised embryos so that female progeny, preferred on the racing circuit, can be guaranteed.

Whilst Musa enjoys the luxury of working with the best facilities and high-tech resources, he hopes that traditional camel-keepers in the region will also benefit from the renewed interest in camels and breed improvement. "If camel owners shift from quantity to quality, from subsistence to supplying the new markets, then they can get a lot of money," he says.

The forbears of the Sultanate of Oman's modern camel-keepers would be amazed by the techniques being used today but perhaps they would also note that some things never change: females are faster and easier to handle and a bull camel is as unpredictable as ever, especially in the rutting season.

Date published: January 2005

 

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