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Humped Wanderers

Who of us has not heard of camels, those characters from fairy tales, various wonderful stories or anecdotes from our childhood? Rarely seen, especially by town dwellers, but various breeds of domesticated camels can nevertheless be found on all continents except Antarctica.
 
A scientific description of wild camels was first made by the great Russian researcher N.M.Przewalski in 1883. These phlegmatic giants were first handled by man a very long time ago  there are sculptured images of pack camels dating back over five thousand years. Since that time they have been supplying their owners with quality meat, full fat milk and very warm wool, and have fulfilled their role as draught and pack animals. Nowadays of course nobody uses camels to carry goods for thousands of kilometers as in bygone days. Today in Asia a camel is considered to be a symbol of prosperity, and walking capital that costs almost nothing to maintain. In Arab countries camel races and fights between the males of particular breeds are very popular.
White camels are especially valued. Since time immemorial they have been regarded as symbols of happiness and were selected for people of high rank. In our mechanical age white camels are still highly valued in oriental countries.

Scientists discovered that camels appeared some tens of millions of years ago in northern America, from where they moved to southern America and through the Bering isthmus  to Eurasia and Africa. Long before man gained absolute power over wild nature, ancestors of the present day camels had widely populated all of Eurasia. In the process of evolution various dwarf and gigantic species of camels came and went. The Bactrian two-humped camel that bred widely about a million years ago is now preserved in extremely small numbers in Mongolia. Due to this, the two-humped camels have been included in the International Red Book, labelled as critically endangered. Unfortunately, over the last few centuries many big animals have shared the sorrowful destiny of the wild camel and have been completely or almost completely annihilated by man. It is easy to see how this happens: they breed and grow slowly, and moreover, are sought-after targets for hunters - whom they cannot withstand.

According to experts, the one-humped camel known as the dromedary has been bred by man in the process of selection from two-humped ones. The majority of legends relating to camels tell of their fantastic endurance and ability to do without water for a long period of time. It is really so; these animals can adapt surprisingly well to life in deserts. Without going into detail one can say that particular nature of the camel's constitution allows it to discharge precious moisture very economically. In cases of emergency they can do without water for more than 30 days. Camels' humps are special fat reservoirs that allow the animals to survive adverse conditions. Other adaptations include thick eyelashes and nostrils covered by bushy hair to defend against sandstorms. As cloven-hoofed animals, camels have no horny hooves, but only soles covered by a coarse skin, and they are therefore known as callus-footed. South-American llamas and alpacas are their closest relatives.
As a rule camels live in small groups consisting of five to ten animals. The fully grown male is the head of such a group. In winter when mating male camels become extremely aggressive. The fights that happen between them can sometimes be very fierce. In the search for females, wild camels can attack domestic female camels. Pregnancy in camels lasts more than a year which is why the breed appears once every two years. Females give birth upright and to only one colt, which she feeds for a long time.

Camel's milk is highly valued by Asian people for its taste and healing power. Camel's milk is fatter and sweeter than that of cows, and contains a lot of proteins and vitamin C. Camel's milk is especially useful for those who have cardiac insufficiency and low hemoglobin. 
Camels are being successfully bred in farms to provide meat, milk and wool. It is difficult to think of another domestic animal that possesses as many merits as the camel, and this is the reason why this eternal desert wanderer will always play a very important role in man's world.

 

Author & Photos by:  Alexander E.Esipov (Institute Zoology)


Discovery Central Asia #20

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