I’ve done a number of expeditions by camel — both dromedary and Bactrian. And I like to think I’m fairly well read in the lore of this noble beast.
Well, I learned a pile of new camel facts yesterday when I cracked open the cover of Camel by Robert Irwin.
This is a fascinating read for anyone who is the least bit curious about the natural world.
Irwin doesn’t just discuss the camel’s unique adaptations to arid environments, and its evolution and ancestors. He also includes chapters on camel culture: the camel in literature and art, the camel’s role in history, and traditional cultures who continue to maintain close relationships with this creature right into modern times.
It’s everything you ever wanted to know about camels but were afraid to ask, written in an engaging and often humorous style that’s fun to read.
I thought you might enjoy a grab bag of camel facts taken from the book — and of course I hope it’ll hook you into picking up a copy and reading it for yourself.
All quotes are from Camel by Robert Irwin unless indicated otherwise. I present them here in no particular order.
A Miscellany of Fascinating Camel Facts
One hump or two?
Ever wonder how come some camels have one hump while others have two?
“The embryos of both the dromedary and the Bactrian have the beginnings of two humps, but in the case of the dromedary these fuse into one during fetal development. (This suggests that the one-humped camel evolved from a two-humped breed.)”
The dromedary is primarily found in Africa and Arabia, while the cold-adapted Bactrian roams the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of Mongolia and China.
Incredibly intelligent or slack-jawed brute?
Every time I tell someone that I prefer camels to horses, I hear the same old cliches about camels being ill-tempered, stupid, stubborn and green-saliva-spitting mean.
None of that has been true to my experience with these creatures.
This quote from Robyn Davidson’s wonderful book Tracks is a much more accurate reflection:
“They are the most intelligent creatures I know except dogs and I would give them an IQ rating roughly equivalent to eight-year-old children. They are affectionate, cheeky, playful, witty, yes witty, well-possessed, patient, hard-working, and endlessly interesting and charming. They are also very difficult to train, being of an essentially undomestic turn of mind as well as extremely bright and perceptive. This is why they have such a bad reputation. If handled badly, they can be quite dangerous and recalcitrant.” Robyn Davidson, Tracks.
Camels are, however, similar to humans in that they’re capable of holding a grudge:
A camel that has been injured by a person, “will bide his time before taking revenge with bites and kicks.” – Hassanein Bey
It’s all in how you treat them:
“I can remember another that was as attached to her master as a dog might have been. At intervals throughout the night she came over, moaning softly, to sniff at him where he lay, before going back to graze.” – Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands
A physiology perfectly adapted to the desert
No animal is more perfectly adapted to the incredibly harsh conditions of the Earth’s arid regions. There’s so much more to talk about in this regard, but here are a few facts that jumped out for me:
“A dehydrated camel can drink 27 gallons in ten minutes. Any other creature would die of overhydration if it attempted to drink so much, but uniquely the camel can store vast quantities of water in its bloodstream.”
“It can drink water with a higher salt content than sea water.”
“A human sweats as soon as temperature rises above the normal body temperatire of 37 degrees, but the camel can raise its tolerance up by as much as six degrees before it begins to sweat. It is unique among mammals in this.”
Connoisseur of fine art?
Camels like music.
Irwin writes that in 1911 an experiment was conducted at the Bronx Zoo, where “a naturalist took a gramophone round the zoo and played music to various animals. Although quite a few of the animals were indifferent or even hostile, the llama stood rigid to attention to hear the music. The camel was equally delighted and tried to get its muzzle into the antique gramophone’s horn and rubbed its face against it.”
Bedouin have also been known to sing to camels to urge them on. There are special camel driver’s chants for this purpose. And a camel that is sung to has been observed to walk faster and in a straighter line.
Hmm… I wonder if a camel would enjoy reading my book?
They’re crafty buggers too…
“Be careful tethering the camel, as it can use its front lip to untie knots.”
I’ve seen that myself on more than one occasion. And if they sneak off during the night, they’ll graze their way in the direction of home and you’ll have a hell of a long walk tracking them the next morning.
…and even craftier are the Bedouin
Nomadic peoples who herd camels can apparently recognize the track of each individual camel they own, as well as those of several of their kinsmen. They also have a remarkable ability to read the stories these tracks can tell.
Irwin writes, “The explorer Wilfred Thesiger tells of how he was traveling with some Bedouin in the Empty Quarter. They passed some scuffed tracks. An old man leapt down to examine them and then a little further on to examine some camel-droppings which he broke between his fingers. He reported of the tracks: “They were Awamir. There are six of them. They have raided the Junuba on the southern coast and taken three of their camels. They have come here from Sahma and watered at Mughsin. They passed here ten days ago.” (All this was later confirmed in every detail.)
Useful to humans — for more than just a comfortable ride
“You can use camel urine to wash your hair. It will protect your hair from nits and give it a reddish tinge.”
“Camel’s milk has more fat, three times the Vitamin C and a bit more protein than cow’s milk.”
“It has been estimated that during the First World War 22,812 camels were killed on active service.”
“In 1978 the royal palace in Riyadh acquired an automatic camel milking plant.”
Bikaner, in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, is home to a camel breeding farm. “Camel ice-cream is available at its milk parlour (and is recommended).”
But sadly endangered
At the beginning of the 21st century, the UN estimated that there were approximately 19 million camels in the world, with 15 million of them in Africa and approximately4 million in Asia.
Australia also contains a large population of feral camels — camels that were formerly domesticated but have since turned wild.
But the only truly wild camels left in the world is a small population of wild Bactrians in the Gobi region of Mongolia and China. Sadly, these creatures are closer to extinction than the panda.
John Hare, author of The Lost Camels of Tartary, has set up the Wild Camel Protection Foundation in Britain and has been a tireless campaigner for their survival. Read his excellent books about his desert journeys. And please consider contributing to the protection of these incredible animals before they’re gone for good.
So there you have it. A miscellany of camel facts in no particular order. I just copied down the bits I found myself stopping to read aloud to my wife.
We haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s contained in this enjoyable little volume. Go out and pick up a copy for yourself.