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Wild Bactrian Camels Critically Endangered, Group Says

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 3, 2002
 
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 Mongolia—many 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 relatives—and 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.

Former Nuclear Test Range Becomes Sanctuary—But Dangers Remain

Most surviving wild Bactrian camels live in the Gobi Desert, one of the world's largest. Vegetation is sparse there, and the landscape varies from rocky mountains to stony plains, high sand dunes, and poplar-fringed oases.

Precipitation averages less than four inches (100 millimeters) per year, and may fall only once every two or three years. Temperatures fluctuate wildly, reaching sweltering marks of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) in the summer and plunging as far as 40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius) in the winter.

Life in such climatic extremes is lived on the edge. The tough natural conditions mean that life is precarious. Human impacts that might seem small can have devastating effect.

In such an environment, the camels need all the help they can get. Recently, the Chinese government has attempted to provide some much-needed protection, thanks in large part to the lobbying efforts of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. A 25,097-square-mile (65,000-square-kilometer) reserve, the Arjin Sha Lop Nur Nature Sanctuary, has been established to help protect the camel. Other desert animals, including wild sheep, Tibetan ass, and goitered gazelle, also stand to benefit. The reserve encompasses a desolate area that was used by Chinese government as a nuclear test site from 1955 to 1996.

While the reserve is a step in the right direction, said Hare, it may not be enough to stop the demise of the Bactrian camel. "Ironically, the camels might have been better protected when the area was a nuclear testing range than they are now," said Hare. "During the nuclear testing, no one could go in there. [The camels] seem to show no ill-effects at all from the testing itself."

The creation of the Arjin Sha Lop Nur Nature Sanctuary has demonstrated that the Chinese government can accommodate conservation efforts while still promoting a development agenda of tantamount importance to the government, according to Hare. The prospect holds hope for Bactrian camels and other threatened species.

"China is hell-bent on economic development, especially in the Northwest. So there is always a competition between…development and the environment," Hare said. "There [was] a gas pipeline about to be put through the reserve. We've managed to get them to divert it, at a cost of U.S. $18 million, away from a particularly sensitive camel area. So there is certainly some give and take."

Many factors are pushing the wild Bactrian camel to the brink of extinction, all of them amplified by the unforgiving environment in which the animals dwell. Human impacts have a profound effect—especially upon a population already so reduced in size.

Bactrian camels are targeted by hunters seeking food, sport, or merely to protect their own domestic animals which compete with the camels for grazing space. That same grazing competition from domesticated livestock deprives Bactrian camels of food and poses a risk of interbreeding among domestic animals. Mining, both legal and illegal, also encroaches on the reserve.

A prolonged drought has withered many of the region's oases. At the few remaining watering holes, wolves lie in wait for wild camels. While this is a natural cycle, it has a particularly traumatic effect on a population that has been unnaturally reduced in size. The host of threats against the camel suggests a rather bleak future. "What's the worst-case scenario? In perhaps 50 years they could be extinct in the wild," said Hare. The grim prognosis has led the Wild Camel Protection Foundation to open another avenue to safeguard the population—a captive breeding program supported by the Mongolian Ministry of Nature and the Environment. Only 15 wild Bactrian camels are currently held in captivity in China and Mongolia. The new breeding aims to increase that number and provide scientists a more in-depth look at the unique animal. Still, the future of the wild Bactrian camel will likely depend on efforts to protect the animals in their native desert habitat. Conservationists hope the reclassification of Bactrian camels as critically endangered can aid that effort.

"The listing does help to prompt conservation reaction," said Hilton-Taylor, of the IUCN. "Hopefully it's in time to make a difference."

Last year, John Hare led a National Geographic Society-sponsored camel caravan across the Sahara Desert. The 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometer) expedition from northeastern Nigeria to Tripoli, Libya, retraced the 1906 journey by British explorer Hanns Vischer. Hare described the expedition in a live Web cast broadcast on December 5, 2002 at Nationalgeographic.com. The program was offered under the "Quest for Adventure" lecture series, sponsored by Nature Valley, that brings the world's greatest explorers and adventurers to the National Geographic Society and to people around the world via the Internet.
 

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