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Wild Bactrian camel - On the brink of extinction

Wild Bactrian camels are clinging on in some of
the wildest, most remote and inhospitable habitat
in the world. Photo credit John Hare.

By John Hare, founder of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation

A waterless former nuclear test area seems an unlikely haven for a critically endangered species, even more so when the vast, inhospitable Gobi desert surrounds it. Yet such an area in China's Xinjiang Province is being transformed into a survival area for one of nature's most astonishing survivors, the wild, two humped Bactrian camel. It is the descendant of a breed dating back three or four million years, of whom only 800 to 1000 are thought to have survived, making it makes it much more endangered than the giant Panda.

In 1995, I was fortunate to be the first foreigner since 1953 to obtain permission to enter the arid, lunar landscape of the Gashun Gobi, in China's remote north-west. The area is one of the most unwelcoming and dangerous in the world, an amalgam of Arctic cold and baking heat where vicious, black sandstorms have been known to strip the paintwork of a vehicle and where trucks driven by illegal mining speculators have totally disappeared.

Further expeditions were made in 1996, 1997, 1999, 2005 and 2007. All were concerned with tracking down the mysterious, wild Bactrian camel and in establishing the boundaries of a prospective nature reserve. On the 1995 expedition we encountered a wild Bactrian camel with a seven-hour-old calf tucked under the lowering crest of a monstrous sand dune. We also had many other adventures including warding off an attack by bandits near the Arjin Mountains that border Tibet.

Expeditions to search for wild Bactrian camels
are major undertakings in themselves.
Credit John Hare.

1996 expedition - Dried up Lake Lop Nur

In 1996 our second expedition into the Gashun Gobi took us into one of the most desolate regions on earth, to the dried-up lake of Lop Nur, where an escape from treacherous rock salt was successfully achieved by using cooking oil as an engine lubricant for a clapped out truck. The expedition faced temperature extremes of minus 15 to plus 25 centigrade and was blasted by ferocious sandstorms. We were confronted with thousands of thirty-metre-high eroded land forms called ‘yardangs'.

1997 Bactrian camel migration route surveyed
In 1997 our desert hardened team, undertook an expedition to the south of Lop Nur to try to find a wild camel migration route. It was important that this major road of the migratory wild camel was positioned firmly within the boundaries of the proposed reserve. A violent sandstorm caused our domestic camels to run back towards protective mountains in the middle of the night and our expedition was left abandoned on the edge of Lop Nur for five days. We managed to extricate ourselves and the migration route was successfully surveyed. At last, in 2000, the Chinese State Environmental Protection Agency and the Xinjiang Provincial Authority officially sanctioned the establishment of the 155,000 square kilometre Lop Nur Wild Camel Nature Reserve which turns over half of the former nuclear test site into a nature sanctuary bigger than Texas. It is now a national reserve, truly, a case of turning swords into ploughshares.

1999 169 wild Bactrian camels found
In 1999 on yet another expedition we crossed previously untraversed sand dunes and discovered 169 wild camels and other rare wild animals living in two unmapped valleys. This was akin to entering the Garden of Eden, as the wild Argali sheep and the wild Tibetan asses that lived there had no fear of man and we walked among them like shepherds with their flocks.

As for the wild camels, DNA tests point to major genetic differences between the domestic Bactrian camels and their two-humped wild cousins. They now only survive in the Gashun Gobi and in an isolated corner of Mongolia and the two groups have been separated forever by road and rail developments in China. Since the cessation of atmospheric nuclear testing in the nineteen seventies, they are under new and very real threats from man. The wild Bactrian camels are shot for food by speculators who are illegally hunting for gold and other minerals, and whose mining operations can involve the use of potassium cyanide which poisons the vegetation. At one salt water spring we found home made land mines which had been constructed from gelegnite to blow up wild camels when they ventured out of the desert to seek out salt water slush. The meat would have been picked up for food. They appear, paradoxically, to have been safer during the period of nuclear activity.

This camel calf was probably just a few hours old
when seen. Credit John Hare

How do Bactrian camels survive under such extreme conditions?
However, the appeal of the wild Bactrian camel to conservationists goes beyond genetics and curiosity value. We have a mammal which survives under conditions where man cannot, which is why the Chinese have opted for the desolate area as an atmospheric nuclear test site. The Gashun Gobi has no fresh water, only the saline variety which bubbles up to the surface from underground springs and on which the Bactrian survives. No other living creature, not even the domestic camel, can drink it. How has this amazing animal survived on salt water? How has it survived over 40 atmospheric nuclear tests? This is a fertile field for urgent scientific study.

Wild Camel Protection Foundation
Meanwhile in Mongolia, the Wild Camel Protection Foundation has established a captive wild Bactrian camel breeding programme north of the Mongolian specially protected area where 350 wild camels survive in the wild.
Click here to go to their website.

This programme has started successfully and in its first full year of operation, four wild Bactrian camel calves have been born. Earlier this year, while on an expedition into the Mongolian reserve using domestic camels, we spotted 116 wild camels, including a large herd of over 30. 

The Wild Camel Protection Foundation has
established a captive wild Bactrian camel breeding
programme in Mongolia. Credit John Hare. 

This expedition also produced its own share of drama. One of our team was lost overnight in the Atis Mountains, not a pleasant experience when wolves are howling and the temperature is hitting -15 degrees. Our Mongolian guide reassured us, by divining with 21 stones, that he would eventually return safely (which he did). Again, we found a previously unrecorded and unmapped spring. The wild Bactrian camel is a remarkable and resilient creature which is on the brink of survival. All the efforts of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation are concentrated on ensuring that it does not become yet another species that disappears forever from our planet.

John Hare is the founder of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation.

He has published ‘The Lost Camels of Tartary' (Little Brown 1999) and ‘Shadows across the Sahara'(Constable and Robinson 2002) and ‘Mysteries of the Gobi' (I.B.Tauris 2009)