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Born to be wild

By on June 24, 2022 in News

Some of the species that show up on our EDGE lists might be surprising. Not because they are particularly weird or unheard of, in fact the opposite. What if you thought all camels were the same and you knew there was an estimated 35 million individuals of this species worldwide…your first instinct would not be that they were endangered!

Two months old wild camel calf with its mother

That’s where the confusion of the EDGE species the wild camel (Camelus ferus) and its well-known counterpart, the domestic Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) comes into play. This confusion is having a detrimental effect on the much need conservation of the wild camels, where less than 1000 individuals are known to exist in the wild.

The wild camel, known locally as khavtgai and in Mongolian Хавтгай, is an incredible EDGE species which can withstand drought, food shortages and even radiation from nuclear weapons testing! The species evolved in North America over 46 million years ago and began to migrate spreading through Asia. They now survive only in Mongolia and China, having already gone extinct in their ancestral ranges.

Since migrating this two-humped camel has superbly adapted to the harsh Gobi Desert, where vegetation is sparse, water sources are limited and temperatures range from -40°C to 40°C. Individuals eat thorns and dry, salty plants, which other herbivores avoid, and they’re the only land mammals that can drink salty or brackish water with no ill effects. With fat stores in their humps, they can go for several days at a time without nourishment, and when accessing a water source, they will drink vast quantities rapidly to replace what is missing from their bodies. They can drink up to 57 litres in one go!

The difference between a camels red blood cells and human red blood cells

Wild camels and their relatives differ from all other mammals because they have oval-shaped (instead of circular) red blood cells. The elongated shape of their cells means they can circulate even in thick blood and travel through narrowing blood vessels, preventing the common effects of dehydration. The camel’s red blood cells are also capable of expanding up to 240% of their original volume without rupturing; most animals’ cells can only expand 150%. Not only that, unlike other hoofed mammals their body load rests not on the hooves, but on the sole pads, and only the front end of the hooves actually touch the ground.

As you can see, they are an incredibly unique and rare species, but their numbers continue to decline, primarily due to hunting, habitat loss, and competition for resources with introduced livestock. Conservation is imperative for their survival but the confusion between the wild camel and their domestic counterpart is diminishing public acknowledgement that this species is on the brink of extinction.

Knowing that conservation is vital for the wild camel’s survival, here at EDGE we have supported two Fellows, Yuan Lei in Lop Nur National Nature Reserve in China and Adiya Yadamsuren in the Great Gobi Special Protected Area in Mongolia. During their Fellowships they collected data which informed the development of a long-term conservation strategy. This strategy provides benefits to both the wild camels and the human inhabitants of the harsh desert ecosystem, but more can always be done.

A new study led by ZSL and partners – ‘What’s in a name?’ published online by the Cambridge University Press, helps explain why differentiating the wild camels from the domestic Bactrian camel is a key step in helping to protect them.

Morphological differences between the Bactrian camel (a) and wild camel (b) Wild camels have smaller, pyramid-shaped humps, a smaller body, slimmer legs and a flatter skull.

With an abundance of scientific proof that now supports this distinction there is hope that this will contribute to the advancement of further conservation efforts. We may just be able to bring this remarkable creature back from the brink.