Very few people are aware that the critically endangered wild double-humped camel (Camelus ferus) is, according to ZSL, the eighth most endangered large mammal in the world. As few as 450 roam the Mongolian Gobi, in a 55,000 square kilometre reserve called the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area ‘A’. Another 600 are found across the Chinese border, in the desert surrounding the dried-up lake of Lop Nur where, in 2003, the Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF), a UK registered charity, established an even larger reserve.
In 2008, genetic testing carried out by the Veterinary University in Vienna on samples sent by WCPF from both China and Mongolia proved the wild camel is an entirely new and separate species that evolved over 700,000 years ago – and not, as was previously thought, a domesticated Bactrian camel turned feral.
In China, wild camels have developed the incredible ability to drink water with a higher salt content than seawater and they survived 43 atmospheric nuclear tests when their habitat was the former Lop Nur nuclear test area. Today, their enemy is man, who enters their protected areas, often illegally, to explore for gold, copper or iron ore and shoots the wild camel for food. A growing wolf population in both countries also takes its toll.
In 1997, alarmed by these growing threats, I co-founded the WCPF, which obtained World Bank funding and established the Lop Nur Wild Camel National Nature Reserve in China – at 155,000 square kilometres one of the largest in the world.
In 2004, the WCPF also established a Wild Camel Breeding Centre, in southwestern Mongolia, on the fringe of the Gobi ‘A’ site. Peter Hall, an Australian philanthropist, along with the Mongolian Ministry for Nature both provided essential support. We started with 12 wild camels and today there are 28.
November to February, is when the male camels start their three-month-long ‘rut’ and the females come into season. As temperatures drop into the minus 30s, the male camels’ adrenalin levels rise.
If a group of young bull camels challenge the alpha male in the confines of a wild camel breeding centre, the situation can be explosive. Fences and wooden buildings can be smashed and herdsmen put in fear of their lives.
The only solution is to remove the three-to-six-year-old males from the fray. Consequently, in October 2013 we released two young males into the desert, and six more in October 2015. They were fitted with satellite collars by the Academy of Sciences in China and both the releases have been extremely successful.
Our goals are to safeguard the wild camel’s unique genetic makeup for future generations and to introduce fresh blood into the wild population by releasing camels we breed into their natural habitat.
But it’s not only the camel’s genetic make-up that is unique. Its ability to survive both nuclear testing and salt water make it a species that must not be lost to the world on account of man’s greed.
John Hare is the co-founder of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation (a UK registered charity – number 1068706), and is committed to saving from extinction in the Gobi deserts of China and Mongolia the critically endangered wild camel. See www.wildcamels.com and www.johnhare.org.uk for more details.
For more on the topic of extinction, pick up Geographical’s special themed September 2016 issue, on sale now.