for National Geographic News
The wild Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) a two-humped ancestor of domesticated camels, is now considered "critically endangered" according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), a non-profit conservation organization based in Cambridge, England.
Perhaps only 950 wild camels survive in their native desert habitat of northwest China and Mongoliamany of them in a remote, harsh desert area that was, until recently, a Chinese nuclear test range. The reclassification of wild Bactrian camels to "critically endangered" status in October 2002 places the camel in the same category as the panda, a standing that reflects the increasingly precarious position of that small population.
"This means that the wild population of Bactrian camels is on the brink of extinction," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, a program officer with the IUCNs endangered species listing project. "If it continues declining at the current rate, we will lose it."
Observations made during five field expeditions starting in 1993 by John Hare and the United Kingdom-based Wild Camel Protection Foundation suggest that the surviving populations may be facing an 80 percent decline within the next three generations.
"I'm sorry, of course, that the situation is so critical," said Hare, citing the new designation of wild Bactrian camels to critically endangered status. "But I'm also glad, because hopefully this change of status will increase awareness of this remarkable animal's plight."
Wild Camel Survives on Salt Water in Harsh Desert Climes
The wild Bactrian camel is uniquely adapted to its harsh desert habitat. Though it is likely the ancestor of domesticated camels, Hare notes that studies suggest a significant DNA difference between wild and domesticated Bactrian camels.
"It's possible, though not proven, that the wild Bactrian camel could actually be a separate species," said Hare.
The roots of such a theory stretch back thousands of years when humans began to use Bactrian camels as work animals. "When man domesticated the wild Bactrian about 4,000 years ago, there might have been two distinct species," said Hare. "One species could have been easier to catch, and today's wild camels could be the remnants of the other species which was more difficult to catch."
Whether or not they constitute a separate species, today's wild Bactrian camels do have some notable traits that distinguish them from their relativesand could prove valuable to science.
The animal can survive by drinking a saltwater slush that is unpalatable to its domestic cousins. "We have a mammal who can survive on salt water," said Hare. Maybe that's an area for scientific research."
Thousands of years in extreme desert conditions may have also helped the camel to develop an immune system which could prove resistant to certain types of disease, according to Hare.
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