Bactrian Camel

 
 For information on wild camels, visit the Wild Camel Protection Foundation at www.wildcamels.com.  Photo of domestic zoo camel, John Gomes.  Photo of wild camel, John Hare.
 

Bactrian Camel

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Description

The most noticeable features of Bactrian camels are their two humps.  A thick, shaggy, dark brown to beige coat covers the camel during cold weather and is shed when the temperature rises.  Longer hair hangs from the neck and gives the appearance of a beard.  Bushy eyebrows, a double row of eyelashes, ears lined with hair and the ability to close nostrils and lips tightly serve as protection from harsh, blowing winds and sand.  Their tough, even-toed feet help them to cross the rocky deserts of Asia and travel through snow or sand.  Domestic and wild camels are genetically separate species.  Domestication occurred over 4,000 years ago in Bactria, near Iran.  Wild camels have light brown fur with a dark stripe on the back and darker upper front legs. They are larger than domestics and have a lean body with small, pointed humps.  Domestics have varied fur color, with no back stripe or dark legs.  Their fur is thicker and longer than wild camels and the body is stout with large, thick humps.

Lifestyle

A group of camels is called a caravan.  Caravans are led by an adult male camel and may consist of six to twenty individual camels.  Wild camels are active mainly during the day and are generally found alone or in small groups of up to 30 animals.  Domestic camels are pack animals, carrying loads of 600 pounds for 30 miles a day.  They spend time moving among grazing areas.  Bactrian camels run 40 miles per hour if necessary, or 19 miles per hour for 40 miles without stopping.  Wild camels are the toughest of the tough, surviving extremes from -40°F to 120°F. They drink spring water with higher salt content than sea water, which no other animal can drink (not even domestic camels). They even survived 45 years of nuclear testing over their Chinese Gobi habitat.

Life in the Gobi Desert

Wild camels live in the Mongolian and Chinese Gobi deserts. Plants are sparse and rain falls once every two or three years. Terrain includes mountains, stony plains, cement-like flatlands, and high sand dunes. Powerful sandstorms are able to strip paint from a vehicle.

One Hump or Two?

Camel humps store fat, not water. The fat is used for energy during weeks or months without water. Bactrian camels have two humps, while Dromedary camels have one. Before birth, the Dromedary camel has a small second hump that does not develop past embryo stage. This suggests wild camels may be the ancestor of all camels on earth.

Food Habits

Camels are herbivores.  They are able to eat plants that are dry, prickly, salty, and/or bitter in desert areas of limited vegetation. When other nutrients are not available, they may feed on bones or skin of other animals.  Their ability to feed on a wide range of food items allows them to live in areas with sparse vegetation. The digestion process begins with their tough mouths.  The first time food is swallowed, it is not fully chewed.  The partly chewed food, or cud, goes into the stomach and later is brought back up for further chewing.  Unlike regular ruminants such as cows with a four-chambered stomach, camels have a three-chambered stomach.  The humps with fat stores give the camel the ability to go many days and up to months without eating.  The humps decreases in size and become flabby as its contents are metabolized.  Depletion of the hump is directly linked to the time between eating and the amount of energy expended.  Thus, the size of the hump serves as an indication of health, food supply and general well-being.  Camels can go for several days without water.  When water is available, they drink only to replace what is missing from their body.  This amount can vary from nothing to  30 gallons (114 liters).  Drinking the whole 30 gallons of water takes only ten minutes.  Camels can also quench their thirst with salty or brackish water.  In winter months, plants alone provide water.

Lifecycle

Mating season occurs in fall, with gestation lasting thirteen months and young being born from March through April.  One or occasionally two calves are produced.  Females can give birth to a new calf every other year.  The baby calf has the ability to stand at birth and walks only a few hours afterward.  The young calf stays with its mother for three to five years, until it reaches sexual maturity.

Population Status, Threats & Conservation

There are over 2 million domestics in Central Asia, but fewer than 1,000 wild camels divided between three groups in China and one in Mongolia. Threats include hunting, mining in the Chinese Gobi, domestic cross-breeding, livestock grazing, and drought which dries up oases or areas of water. In the few remaining oases, poachers set traps and wolves wait to prey on camels. 

Wild Camel Protection Foundation

In an effort to save Critically Endangered wild camels, the Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF) conducts research and expeditions into the Chinese and Mongolian Gobi Deserts. Chinese Gobi expeditions from 1995 to 1999 led to the establishment of the Lop Nur Wild Camel National Nature Reserve in China in 2000 to protect camels and habitat. This was critical, as wild camels in the Chinese Gobi are the only herds still genetically unique from domestics. The WCPF also started a captive breeding program in Mongolia for wild camels. A female has only one birth every two years, so the species faces extinction without this breeding program.  To learn more about the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, visit www.wildcamels.com.

Sources:
Wild Camel Protection Foundation, www.wildcamels.com
Fedewa, J. 2000. “Camelus bactrianus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web