The camel (Family:Camelidae) is one of the oldest animal domesticates as documented in ancient history and the name is derived from the Latin (Camelus) and greek (Kamélos) languages. This animal species is key to the survival of many in the desert and has often been tied to major nomadic ancient civilizations. Camels occur in two distinct phenotypic forms either one humped (Dromedary) or two humped (Bacterian). The dromedaries (Camelus dromedarius) (figure 1) often occur in the Middle East and in some isolated parts of Africa (North, Eastern and Central) while the Bacterian (Camelus Bactrianus) are found more often in Central Asia. Most of these animals are reared in nomadic, sedentary and transhumance production systems dependent on the climate type.
Origin, distribution and population status
The dromedary or one humped camel (Camelus dromedaries) is one of the largest mammalian and domestic ungulates that transverses the earth’s terrain and a common feature of the arid areas of Africa. The unique name is coined from old French and Late Latin words dromadaire and dromedarius respectively, which originated from the Greek language dromas meaning runner or running. As history would have it, dromedaries were first domesticated in the horn of Africa and Southern Arabia in 3,000BC. This camel population is popularly referred to as the “ship of the desert” due to its extensive use in human transportation and ancient trade of goods across the Middle East and North Africa. The estimated camelid population in the world is estimate at 23 million with atleast 90% being dromedaries.
Approximately 11 million dromedaries, representing two thirds of the world’s camel population, are in the arid areas of Africa, particularly in East Africa, i.e. Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. Globally and within the continent, Somalia holds the highest dromedary camel population with over 7 million herd followed closely by Sudan (4.7 million), Kenya (2.9 million), Niger (1.7 Million) and Mauritania (1.4 Million) (Table 1).
Table 1: Estimated camel populations across the continent
The dromedary camel is an exemplary animal that has outperformed its counterparts such as the donkey in providing essential services and products to people who live in arid and marginalized areas. Its sterling performance can be attributed to the unique physical and adaptive traits that it possesses. The dromedary camel is a hardy animal with the ability to walk 60km each day carrying up to 250kg on its back. This is often in the hot and dry conditions of the desert. This feat is only attainable due to an array of excellent anatomical and physiological adaptations that allow them to withstand long periods of time without water without any adverse effects. These physiological adaptations include the distinct hump. The hump is a reserve of fatty tissues which are often meticulously metabolized and converted to water and food, thus preventing dehydration and starvation. The camel’s water conserving abilities are numerous, these include, the ability to withstand large body temperature variations of up to 6˚C and little water loss in fecal material and urine. The latter adaptation is due to their efficient kidneys and intestines. Infact the lack of water in their feaces and urine is evident, with reports of their urine being as thick as a syrup and the feaces so dry that their keepers do not require to dry them further to utilize them as a source of fuel.
Dromedary camels have a third clear eyelid and extremely long double layered eyelashes that protects their inner eyes from the effects of sand storms (Figure 2), a common occurrence in the desert as well as the harsh sunlight. In addition, the camel’s nostrils have the ability to completely close preventing any sand from entry. These unique facial features are remarkable evolutionary characteristics. The even-toed ungulate is able to walk with ease on sand due to their large flat feet that spread out, increasing the surface area. These feet are also heavily padded providing additional cushioning from the hot sand, further supporting the animal’s resilience to cover such long distances effectively.Their characteristic thick coats act as insulators from the intense heat and depending on the season, the coat colors lighten increasing reflection of heat waves thus reducing sunburns. The sandy colored coat color is also an excellent camouflage.
Dromedary camels attain reproductive maturity at three to five years of age and often mate during the mating season that lasts three to five months. The gestation period is approximately 12 months and calves birth weight ranges between 36-39kg. The lactation period ranges between 12-18 months. Female camels produce up to 25 years of age and an average of 8–10 calves during a lifetime (Figure 3). However, high calf mortalities in the first three months is common and the greatest threat to the survival of this offspring is poor management practices and infectious diseases. Often herders do not allow the new-calf to suckle, the first milk thus preventing access to the natural antibodies16 and inevitably lowering immunity. The dromedary camel potential is extensive but has remained relatively
untapped within the continent. There are numerous products that these populations produce.
Camel milk is highly nutritious but still only occupies less than 1% of the milk produced globally, far behind buffalo and small ruminants (goats and sheep). From a study undertaken to interrogate the dairy potential of camels versus cows in Ethiopia, farmers in Afar got an average of 1-1.5 liters of milk from the Afar zebu as opposed to 4-5 liters from the Dankil camels. Interestingly, a healthy camel under good management and feed can produce 2000 liters of milk per lactation period. Unlike cattle, camels can maintain an average daily milk yield of up to a year provided fodder and feed are made available and thus are efficient milk producers during drought spells. In terms of the composition, camel milk has been reported to be superior compared to domestic animals such as cattle. Camel milk is also reported to have therapeutic qualities, as it boosts immune systems and lowers blood sugar levels, this is due to the presence of insulin –like substances in the milk, reduced allergic reactions(lactose intolerance), increases blood circulation, prevents aneamia. In addition, given the tropical climate characteristic of the African continent, camel milk possess superior keeping quality this is due to the high protein content (4.02%) which inhibits the growth of bacteria. This is a very important trait, as enables African camel farmers to produce their milk even under poor hygienic conditions.
The camel milk industry is slowly gaining momentum in Africa. In Kenya, camel milk has now been packaged (Figure 4) and is locally available in various supermarkets across the country. Other available camel milk products include ghee, cheese, yoghurt and various ice-cream flavours. There are also numerous traditional fermented camel milk products found in various Africa communities such as Suusac and garris (Kenya, Somalia and Sudan); dhanaan (Somali) and ititu (Ethiopia). Often these products are produced by placing the milk in specially smoked containers to allow spontaneous fermentation to take place.
Camel’s meat demand has grown overtime, and in Eastern Africa, camel butcheries in urban areas are on the increase. Camel meat production is estimated at 22%, 34% and 14% in Eastern Africa, Northern Africa and Western Africa respectively. At average, the carcass of a female dromedary weighs between 250-350kg while that of the male can weigh up to 400kg. Camel meat has various qualities, its low on cholesterol, high in protein and quite tasty.
These animals are excellent and reliable sources of draught power. Over time immemorial, Camels have been used for transportation purposes by most of the herders; this includes the transportation of goods for trade, agricultural produce and humans. They are also used as racing animals, and have been reported to reach a speed of 34km/h. Camel racing is a popular sport in chad and a number one
tourist attraction. Dromedary camels are also used for military purposes especially in desert warfare. Chadian soldiers have been known to use camel cavalries (Figure 5). Ancient history details the use of camels as an effective anti-cavalry weapon as horses were afraid of the camel scent and become disoriented thus granting the camel cavalries victory.
As climate change effects continue to ravage the African continent, human populations that live in the arid and semiarid area will rely more heavily on dromedary camels as a source of milk, meat and draught power. It is therefore pertinent that the continent works towards boosting the camel populations and also focusing on tapping into the economic potential of this very animal.
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