The wild Bactrian camel, one of the world's most endangered species,
looks to have a safe future thanks to the joint efforts of British
and Chinese conservationists.
There are probably only 800-1000 of these two-humped camels left
in the wild, making them rarer than the giant panda, explains British
explorer and conservationist John Hare. The majority live in the
barren and uninhabited Gashun Gobi desert in central and eastern
Xinjiang. The only other places they still survive are in the Taklamakan
desert in the Tarim river basin in China, and in the Great Gobi
Reserve in south-western Mongolia.
Numbers have fallen sharply in recent years. Hunters have shot
many of the camels, either for sport or for fun. Their fragile habitat
is also at risk from illegal gold mining and oil prospecting. Chemicals
used in mining operations such as potassium cyanide have leaked
into the soil and poisoned the camels' precious grazing.
Hare and his Chinese collaborator, Yuan Guoming, a professor of
Zoology at the Environmental Protection Bureau in Urumqi, have campaigned
for five years for the wild Bactrian camel to be protected. In January
2000 this goal should be realised thanks to China's State Environmental
Protection Agency (SEPA) and the fundraising efforts of a British
charity, the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. From that date SEPA
has agreed to create a sanctuary for the camels covering 150,000
square km. It will be one of the largest wildlife reserves in the
world, larger than England and half as large again as South Korea.
The Gashun Gobi desert has one of the most extreme climates on
earth. Summer daytime temperatures can be as high as 49°
C; winter nights, as cold as -35°
C. There is no fresh water, and there are no human settlements.
The wild Bactrian camel is the only mammal able to survive in the
area; even the goitered gazelle which can eke out an existence elsewhere
in the Xinjiang deserts cannot do so in the Gashun Gobi.
"The camels are uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions,"says
John Hare. "Young camels in their first two years can adapt
to drinking salt-water. They are the only mammals able to do so,
and it is the only thing that lets them survive in the Gashun Gobi.
Even so, the camels must migrate over huge distances in pursuit
of unreliable water sources and seasonal grazing."
"Wild Bactrian camels are leaner and have shorter, lighter
hair than their domestic Bactrian cousins," he adds. "They
are therefore better suited to withstand extreme cold than the one-humped
"They also have a special place in evolutionary history -
the wild camels in the sanctuary are the last remnants of the herds
which crossed over from North America on the Bering Strait land
bridge 3-4 million years ago. Some Bactrian camels were domesticated
4,000 years ago, but the wild camels in the Gashun Gobi have wholly
avoided domestication and are now genetically different from the
ordinary Bactrians. Moreover, research has shown that in their earliest
days of life, one-humped camels have a small second hump that does
not develop further. This is further proof that the ancestors of
all camels on earth looked like the wild Bactrian camels of today."
When he began to explore the Gashun Gobi and Lop Nur in 1995,
John Hare was the first foreigner to have been given permission
to enter the area since the 1950's. He has since returned on three
subsequent expeditions to track and study the camels.
The animals migrate in groups of no more than 12, and are exceptionally
shy. It can take several weeks of searching before the first sighting
is made. Hare believes that because of this shyness, the key to
protecting the camels is to keep to a minimum the number of human
visitors to Lop Nur. With this in mind, eleven checkpoints are being
built on the edge of the new Lop Nur Nature Sanctuary near the closest
villages. They will be linked by radios donated by British firm
Cable & Wireless. "Since it is only possible to enter the
desert at these eleven points, the new network of checkpoints should
make it possible to spot all unwelcome visitors," says John
Hare. The checkpoints have been made possible through a donation
of $650,000 from the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank,
and $200,000 raised from private donors in Britain and from British
firms such as Shell and Jardine Fleming.
The camels' elusiveness gives them some protection against hunters,
but may actually put the survival of the species even more at risk.
Only fifteen wild Bactrians have ever been caught alive. And with
so few animals in captivity, the whole species could be wiped out
if the natural habitats in China and Mongolia were lost.
Experts therefore believe that it is crucial for the camels' long-term
survival prospects to breed enough animals in captivity to insure
against disaster. But each female can have young at most once every
two years, so relying on natural methods would permit numbers to
rise only very slowly. An Australian scientist who breeds racing
camels in Dubai, Dr Alex Tinson, has come up with a neat solution
based on human IVF techniques. He hopes to use sperm and eggs from
the 15 wild Bactrians in captivity to allow up to 40 Bactrians to
be born every year. The eggs will be fertilised in a laboratory
in Xinjiang and the embryos transplanted into domesticated camels,
where they should incubate normally. If the experiment prove a success,
Dr Tinson will teach his techniques to Chinese scientists so that
they can continue the work locally in Xinjiang.
John Hare and Professor Yuan also believe it is necessary to safeguard
the camels' long-term future by raising environmental awareness
among hunting and mining communities. "We must give a coherent
explanation to prospective hunters as to why the camel must be protected
and why controls are now in place," he says. Naturalist and
chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall is working with them on a "Roots
and Shoots" project in local schools. The project's aim is
to make young people in Xinjiang more aware of the need to look
after the camels and more aware of the impact human activity can
have on the camels' habitat.
In 1998, John Hare was awarded one of SEPA's nine annual special
prizes for his work in setting up the Lop Nur Nature Sanctuary.
The Wild Camel Protection Foundation is based in Britain at: School
Farm, Benenden, Kent, TN17 4EU. Telephone: 0044 1580 241 132. Fax:
0044 1580 240960. E-mail: [email protected].