The Camels evolved in North America, over 46 million years ago. They differ from all other mammals in the shape of their red blood cells, which are oval instead of circular. The ancestors of the true camels migrated across the Bering Strait land bridge to Asia some 3-4 million years ago. Camels disappeared from North America completely around 10,000 years ago. Today, only two species of camel are generally recognised to survive: Camelus ferus (Bactrian or two-humped camel) and Camelus dromedarius(dromedary or one-humped camel).
With Head and body length: 225-345 cm; Shoulder height: 180-230 cm; Tail length: 35-55 cm; Weight: 300-690 kg, The two-humped Bactrian camel is smaller and more slender than its domestic relative, and is superbly adapted to life in the harsh Gobi Desert. It has a double row of long eyelashes and hairs inside the ears to protect against damage from sand, and the camel’s long slit-like nostrils can be closed for further protection during sandstorms. The foot has a tough undivided sole consisting of two large toes, which spread apart widely for efficient travel across the shifting desert sands. The camel’s fur, which is a light brown or beige colour, is thick and shaggy during the harsh winters and is shed rapidly in the spring. Camels are diurnal, sleeping at night in open spaces and foraging for food during the day. Shrubs and grass form the bulk of the diet, but also feed on thorns, dry vegetation and salty plants, which other herbivores avoid. Excess fat is stored in the humps and used as a reserve when food is scarce. This enables the camels to go for several days at a time without eating or drinking. Upon finding water they will drink vast quantities rapidly to replace what is missing from their bodies - they can take in as much as 57 litres of water to restore the normal amount of body fluid. If no fresh water is available, the species can drink salty or brackish water with no ill effects (camels are the only land mammals adapted for this and they are the only animal survived China’s 43 Nuclear Tests). Wild camels are thought to live up to 40 years of age.
Population: There are approximately 600 individuals surviving in China and 350 in Mongolia. In contrast, there are over 2 million domestic Bactrian camels currently living in Central Asia.
Status: Critically Endangered by IUCN
Threats: The species has suffered greatly at the hands of humans. It has lost habitat to mining and industrial development, and has been forced to compete with introduced livestock for food and water.
Conservation Underway: The governments of China and Mongolia have agreed to cooperate in order to protect the species and its fragile desert ecosystem. Assisted by the Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF), the two governments have adopted an ecosystem-based management programme which aims to protect the biodiversity of the Great Gobi Desert. Two reserves have been created – the ‘Great Gobi Reserve A’ in Mongolia in 1982, and the Arjin Shan Lop Nur Nature Reserve in China in 2000. These reserves provide a safe habitat for a wide range of endangered desert animals and plants, as well as the wild camels. The WCPF also aims to increase the population of the species through captive breeding. In 2003 it established a sanctuary in Zakhyn-Us, Mongolia, which has some of the last non-hybridised herds of Bactrian camels.
National Geographic Animal Archive