Sunday, June 14, 2009

Camels - Ships of the Desert

Photo: Camel Karakalpakstan

Camels are on of the most intriguing animals in the world. Every child knows quite well how one looks like. These phlegmatic “ships of the desert” were domesticated by humans thousands of years ago, which is evidenced by more than 5000 year old sculptures showing camels loaded up with wares.

Without doubt, Camels for many centuries remained one of the most effective means of transporting cargo. They are relatively fast – can easily travel 50 kilometres in a day, their carrying capacity is good too – up to 200 kilograms. They do not loose there capacity for work for a whole week without food and water, and as they do not require constant water and fodder and they are much more versatile than horses. Moreover they do not react to temperature fluctuations comfortable in plus or minus +/- 50 Degrees C, which means they can still work in the hottest deserts and the coldest alpine mountains and steeps. Camels however do not thrive in high humidity and have never adapted to temperate regions.

Historically the Camel was used in military battles, however as a fighting animal it has severe limitations. Whilst camels are ideal for the quick transfer of troops and supplies across deserts, they don’t do well in battle. The camel is slower than the horse and its proportions and gait don’t make it either easy to mount or good as a platform to launch ballistics. The most substantial impediment it has is that it will not charge a foe or run over infantry. Further it also can be extremely stubborn much worse than a mule when it so desires. It is not only not capable of close combat, the camel unlike the horse will not defend itself, and when stabbed or shot at, tries to escape the battle field totally ignoring its rider. Those warriors that did use the camel in fighting like the Bedouin, always had to dismount when they were forced into close quarters with an enemy.

Whilst the camel no longer carries goods thousands of kilometres or goes into battle these days it still remains a symbol of strength and endurance. The Camel requires little input for rearing and requires minimal up-keep. It is still highly valued “walking capital” in the Arab world where Camel races and fights between "he" camels are still popular.

White Camels are still greatly valued by the people of the East. In ancient times they were the reserve of Sultans, Khans and other high ranking officials. They are highly prised, bringing much good luck to a household, the Bedouin, often call their kids my "little young white camel" as a term of endearment.

Pygmy and giant breeds of camels emerged and disappeared during the evolutionary process. Archaeologists have discovered fragments of their bones more than 100,000 years old. These fossil remains indicate that these ancient camels were more than twice the size of todays breeds.

Paleontological research shows that camels are closely related to other members of the Cameliadae family that lived in North America after crossing the Bearing Isthmus during the last Ice Age up until 10,000 years ago. Their closest relatives are the Lama, Alpaca, Guanaco and Vicuna which still thrive in South America.

A two humped Bactrian Camel grazed on the wide expanses of Asia a million years ago. It can still be found today in the high deserts of Mongolia and China and the eastern uplands of Central Asia. Sadly these magnificent animals (ED: a number of which I had the privilege to see first hand at the top of the Karategin Valley of Tajikistan) have now entered the Red book; and are on the brink of extinction similar to other large animals that breed and multiply very slowly.

Wild Bactrian camels graze in small groups made up of a male leader and its harem. Females go into heat in winter – sometime in January or February – when the “he” camels fight fierce battles amongst themselves for the right to dominate their harems. During these epic battles camels spit and bite each other in addition to viscous kicks to bring down their opponent/s.

Wild camels may attack the herds of their domesticated congeners killing or injuring the males and driving off the females.

Once in two years after 13 months of gestation a “she” camel gives birth to its calf. On the first day of its life the calf can move independently, but remains at its mother’s side feeding on the fat in its nutritious milk for a long period. Only at the age of 5 years does a camel reach maturity, average lifespan is approximately 40 years.

Specialists believe that one humped camels, known as Dromedaries were created by selective breeding of their two humped compatriots. The Dromedary weights about 300-690 kg, growing to around 2.0-2.2 metres tall. The female has a longer gestation (15 months) than two humped Camels, other features which differentiate it from the two humped Camels are its long bent neck and a sole hump in which it deposits excess fat. This hump which in times of stress acts as an emergency food supply, varies in size depending on the season.

Similar to other cloven hoofed animals camels have two toes on each foot. Because of this they are singled out into a different sub order of callous foot animals; well adapted for walking on drifting sands or soft snow. The Camels lips are thick and rough, which enables them to eat thorny plants. Like a cow, they first swallow their food and then eructate it after partial digestion and thoroughly chewed up. They also need more salt (some 6-8 times more than other desert mammals) for preserving their ability to store water.

The majority of legends linked to camels tell about their amazing stamina. They have adapted to life in the desert so well, that in extreme conditions a dromedary may well endure a whole month without water (losing up to 40% of its weight). But once it reaches a source of water it may drink 50 litres or more.

Camels are found in the plains of Uzbekistan primarily in Bukara, Khorezm and here in the Republic of Karakalpakstan. Besides the camel and the dromedary there are extremely powerful dromedaries called Nars that are a hybrid breed (of one and two humped camels), which combine the merits of both, however the bring up inferior descendents and are normally not used for breeding. Larger and much stronger Bactrian Camels are found in the mountainous regions of eastern Uzbekistan outside of the Republic.

In Karakalpakstan the camel is not only a good capital investment but a source of valuable milk, wool and Meat. Their milk is rich in Vitamins and minerals, it also contains antibodies which help fight off disease. Camel milk or Shubat has a strong sour taste is much favoured particularly by men (ED: makes even the strongest Vodka taste tame). It has 3 times more Vitamin C and D than normal milk. Its wool also possesses valuable properties; people believe that it helps heal osteochondrosis, rheumatism and other articulation ailments. It is much more durable and lighter than other wools, retains heat better and does not cause allergic reactions. Camel meat has good gustatory flavour and is a very lean meat ideal for dietary dishes as it has no internal fat layers.

Unlike other hoofed animals, Camels do little damage grazing lands, they migrate from one place to another and carefully and cautiously eat up only bits and pieces of vegetation they need, enabling the vegetation to quickly rehabilitate itself.

Source: Uzbekistan Airways Magazine

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