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Volume 32, Number 2March/April 1981

In This Issue

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The Camel in Retrospect

Written by Daniel Da Cruz and Paul Lunde
Additional photographs by Neville Mardell

In a sense, the camel is passing into history - at least in Saudi Arabia. Though there are still herds to be seen, the era of the great camel caravans has passed, and throughout the Arabian Peninsula the effects, to those who notice, are evident: untended desert wells and abandoned caravan routes. Soon, hundreds of centuries of tradition will have vanished.

Today, to be sure, camels are still raised for food - milk and meat - and for racing, but rarely for transport; camels cannot compete with the cross-peninsula Boeings, fast freight trains and trailer trucks that, by 1980, were providing most of the transportation for Saudi Arabia's goods and passengers.

As a symbol of a vanishing world, however, the camel continues to intrigue the Western world - partly because the camel, when introduced in countries outside the Middle East, left an enduring impression and a host of stories. In Australia, for example, in 1860, camels were imported from Peshawar and Afghanistan in hopes that they could help Australians explore the arid outback of that then-unknown continent. They acquitted themselves so handsomely that by the end of the century 6,000 more had been shipped in from British India. And until very recently the odd descendants could still be seen, at sunset, drinking from waterholes in the outback.

Similarly, aficionados of America's frontier history have long been fascinated by the oft-told tale of the U.S. experiment with the camel.

In 1857, the United States Congress, seeking an efficient means of getting mail to the west coast through the arid country beyond the Rockies, appropriated $30,000 to buy 75 camels from the Arab world, the center of camel breeding and export.

They were an instant success. Not only did they thrive on the thorn bushes and straw that the desert and their new masters could provide in the way of food, but also, padding silently out of the alkali flats of the Southwest, unnerved numerous Plains Indians, whose horses needed no urging to vacate the premises at a gallop.

Furthermore, camels made the transition to the New World - commands in English instead of Arabic, hauling mail sacks instead of firewood - without noticeable mental anguish. As General Beale, commanding the Army's camel corps, reported, the camels were "the most docile, patient and easily managed creatures in the world, and infinitely more easily worked than the mule."

Generals, of course, have a somewhat different perspective from that of soldiers, so it's not surprising that Beale's mule skinners-turned-camel drivers didn't agree. They said that the camels stank, spat, kicked, bit and made nasty noises. On the other hand, as one unkindly soul pointed out, so did the mule skinners, and in any case, when it came to a plowing contest in Alabama, an Army camel beat its mule competition hooves down.

The camel's easy adaptation to life in America may be less surprising if you remember that the New World was its historical homeland. Zoologists surmise that in the eons before the ancestors of the American Indian migrated across the Bering Sea to the American continent, the camel's forebears migrated the other way -to Asia. Those who stayed behind became extinct, except for the South American cousins, which include the llama and the vicuna. And in Asia, at some point, the species that had migrated from America developed into two different types: the Bactrian or two-humped camel - a short-legged, heavily furred creature found today in Asia from China to the Black Sea -and the dromedary, or single-humped camel, which inhabits southwest Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. The dromedary is the creature that has so fascinated the West and, when domesticated, contributed so importantly to the history of the Arab East.

No one is sure when the camel entered history; some estimates say it was about-3000B.C. But in any case, funerary decorations in the pyramids show, the camel was known in Egypt before the Assyrian conquest of the seventh century B.C. (See Aramco World, May-June 1973), yet by that time the camel had already been established for 400 years in Syria and Palestine, a result of the Midianites' invasion in which they came "as grasshoppers.. .for both they and their camels were without number..." The Midianites vanished into history, but the camel remained and multiplied. Job, says the Bible, in one of its 31 references to camels, owned 6,000.

It was the Arabs, however, who came to realize, and develop, the full potential of the camel. Indeed, without the camel the entire history of the Arab world might have been quite different. Domestication of the camel enabled early Arabs to explore and master the deserts of the Middle East, develop and monopolize the ancient trade routes between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean, establish mercantile networks and centers in northern and central Arabia, and later, after the rise of Islam, to carry their faith to the borders of China, North Africa and France; because of the camel, Arab armies could move swiftly and unexpectedly across terrain thought impenetrable by distant foes. And though attacks were often made on horseback, once the camel saddle was developed to the point where riders could use lances effectively, camels became tactically important too.

The camel was also a vital element in the daily life and the culture of the Bedouin; it was his chief source of food, raw materials, transport and wealth. Until recent times the desert dweller drank the camel's milk, feasted on its meat, fashioned rope from its wool, made shields and water buckets from its skin, bound wooden saddles together with its sinews, burned its droppings as fuel, and even turned to it for medicines; according to the 11th-century Manafi 'al-Hayawan ("The Uses of Animals"), the camel's hump was a specific for dysentery, its marrow a cure for diphtheria, and its brain, when dried, a treatment for epilepsy.

The camel's chief role, nevertheless, was as a beast of burden because, as a pack animal, the camel was incomparable. Strong, fast and cheap, the camel could carry up to 1,000 pounds on a short haul -more than an elephant - and up to 600 pounds almost forever: 20 to 30 miles a day for weeks on end, often going without any water for three straight days and sustaining itself on nothing but thorns, leaves and other bitter desert plants.

In addition, the camel had a long working life and could traverse terrain that would - and did - kill mules and oxen. The camel, indeed, was so efficient that much of the Arab East, until recently, never needed to develop more than a rudimentary system of roads. The Arab world, in fact, abandoned the roads built by the Persians and Romans before the advent of Islam, as well as the chariots and ox-carts that the Persians and Romans had developed. Why? Because camel transport was 20 percent cheaper than ox-carts (See Aramco World, May-June 1973), its chief competitor.

Behind this astonishing catalog of virtues is an extraordinary example of adaptive biology. Nature has provided the camel with ideal equipment to survive and flourish in harsh, arid environments. The camel's sight and sense of smell, for example, are exceptionally acute: the oblique flaps over the nostrils can be opened or closed at will to detect distant odors or shut out blowing sand, and a double row of eyelashes helps protect its eyes from the sand.

Then there's its divided upper lip. Prehensile and extensile, it permits the camel to examine its food by touch before ingesting it - even if its usual diet makes this particular faculty seem unnecessarily delicate. And its broad feet are padded with a thick mass of fibrous tissue which permits silent, painless progress across flinty ground - as well as stability in soft sand.

More important, given the environment in which it evolved, is the camel's remarkable ability to go without water for extended periods - an adaptation which has given rise to countless myths and amusing theories.

One, first put forward by Pliny the Elder, is that the camel has a built-in reservoir. As late as 1801, British zoologist George Shaw was insisting that independent of the four stomachs . . . the camels have a fifth bag which serves them as a reservoir for water." Another is that the camel stores water in the hump. This theory was based on the fact that in the hot season the camel's hump gets progressively smaller. Scientists speculated that the unwatered camel produced water within its body by breaking down the fat in its hump. Since one pound of fully oxidized fat actually does yield 1.1 pounds of water, a camel with 100 pounds of fat in its hump might seem to be carrying 110 pounds -13 gallons - of potential water.

Neither of those theories, so to speak, holds water. The camel has no special water-storing organ, and while there are pouches in the animal's rumen, or first stomach, it holds less water than that of the cow or other ruminants. As to the hump hypothesis, the fact is that the camel, while inhaling oxygen to oxidize the fat, loses more water by evaporation from the moist surfaces of its lungs than it gains from the fat.

Still, the camel can survive without water for long periods in even the most extreme conditions. Exceptional specimens can carry a rider 50 miles a day for five days before requiring water, and King 'Abd al-'Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, once related that a picked messenger, mounted on a racing camel, covered 530 miles in five and a half days. More remarkable was a dash of 800 miles in eight days, from Riyadh to Iran, made a number of years later: 100 roadless miles a day!

Witnesses have also observed camels in the Sahara going without water for a full winter while thriving on green plants having a high water content. Conversely, a thirsty camel on a hot summer's day has been observed to drink 27 gallons in 10 minutes. How can the one metabolic feature be reconciled with the other? Where does the water come from, and where does it go?

The answer, apparently, is an array of adaptations which, together, make the camel's metabolism a wonder of the animal kingdom. Its diet, for instance, consists mainly of fibrous, spiny bushes, low in nutritional value, and its taste has become so specialized that except in extremity it refuses food with a high protein value. But the camel's digestive system is such that it can extract nutrition even from that meager diet; part of the urea that the camel's kidneys extract from its blood is passed back to the stomach where, in combination with partially digested cellulose from vegetable fibers, it gets reprocessed into new protein.

Those invaluable kidneys also enable the camel to tolerate brackish well water which in the desert is often contaminated by salts. The water is dangerous to men, but camels thrive on it. In coastal areas the camel can also eat dried fish or seaweed as salty as the sea itself. In both cases the kidneys remove the excess salt with great efficiency before returning most of the precious water to the bloodstream.

Neither of those mechanisms, however, explains fully the camel's ability to withstand great heat with low water requirements. Not until the 195(78 did studies in North Africa, by biologist Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, show just how the camel pulls off a trick no other animal can duplicate.

Man, who shares the camel's environment but differs radically in his adjustment to it, serves as a convenient standard of comparison. When the temperature rises above 100 degrees Fahrenheit - and summer temperatures in the desert often exceed 120 degrees - man must either seek shelter or cool himself by water evaporation; that is, by sweating. On a hot day in the desert, a man can lose a quart of water an hour by sweating, and, within two hours, become savagely thirsty as a result. If he loses more than five percent of his body weight in moisture - that is, about a gallon -his physical condition rapidly deteriorates, his judgment becomes cloudy, his senses distorted. If he loses 10 percent, he becomes deaf, delirious and finally oblivious to pain. In cool surroundings, a man can survive for a time the loss of even 20 percent of his body weight in water - but not in the desert where the loss of no more than 12 percent will cause "explosive heat death." As the blood loses water, it becomes thicker and harder for the heart to pump to the skin where the air may dissipate the accumulating heat. In a vicious circle, the blood becomes hotter, thicker and still hotter until death ensues.

Not so for the camel, Professor Schmidt-Nielsen found. He kept a camel without water for eight days in heat so severe that a man would have had to drink hourly or risk death. While the animal lost 220 pounds - 22 percent of its weight - and was emaciated and listless, it was never in serious trouble. Offered water, it downed bucket after bucket and within an hour had regained its former appearance and condition. But how?

Tests showed that unlike man, whose blood volume and viscosity are strictly proportional to water loss, the thickness and quantity of the camel's blood remain almost constant. One young camel lost 44 quarts of water by sweating, yet its blood volume declined by less than a quart. Moisture had moved from the camel's body tissues to its blood; its tissues dehydrated while the blood volume stayed virtually unchanged.

Biologists decided this was a simple osmotic phenomenon, but why, they then asked, doesn't man's system and that of other mammals work the same way? The question remains unanswered.

Meanwhile, in a further adaptation, camels sweat less than humans. Man's temperature remains steady at about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of the temperature of his surroundings; this taxes a man's cooling system in desert sun temperature where exposed rocks heat up to 150 degrees. The camel's temperature, on the other hand, fluctuates widely. At night its body temperature falls as low as 93 degrees, and the heat of the morning merely serves to warm the animal up to "normal" - with no sweat. Not until a good part of the day has passed and the air temperature has climbed does a camel's body temperature reach about 105 degrees - when it begins to sweat freely. It therefore loses little water except during the day's hottest hours. And even then the camel functions more efficiently than its master, for its higher maximum body temperature decreases the need for cooling, which depends on the difference between body temperature and air temperature. Access to water drops the camel's 12-degree daily swing in body temperature to a mere four degrees, the normal winter variation for the species.

Camel hair, furthermore, is one of nature's better insulators. Even in the summer, when the camel sheds much of its wool - collected for the manufacture of tents and clothing - a layer several inches thick remains to protect the camel's back from the direct rays of the sun. Schmidt-Nielsen demonstrated how well this hair conditioning works by giving a camel a crew-cut. It produced 60 percent more sweat than its unshorn mate.

A final blessing for the camel is the location of its insulating fat: concentrated just below the hump, where it receives the full force of the sun's rays. In other animals, more even distribution of fat over the body surface slows down loss of heat from the body. The camel's fat, concentrated in the one spot where it is most needed, keeps heat out; elsewhere on the animal's body there is nearly no subcutaneous fat, and heat loss is not impeded.

It would seem then the West’s fascination with the camel is at least partly justified. It is a remarkable creature, a fact reflected in the Arabic language; there are nearly 1,000 words in Arabic pertaining to camels.

On the other hand, nobody's perfect and the camel is no exception. Nature, it seems, had enough to do developing those lips and kidneys, insulating the hair and locating that layer of fat just where it should be. To expect a pleasant disposition as well would be a bit much. So the camel also turned out to be bad-tempered and, on occasion, dangerous.

Some of the stories about camels, no doubt, are exaggerated. But they're good stories just the same. Its surly, independent disposition, for example, led to one Arab proverb that goes, "The camelteer has his plans, and the camel has his"

Most observers also agree that in the mating season the camel can be positively dangerous. Its bite causes a ragged wound that commonly becomes infected, and an enraged camel can bite off the top of a man's head. Another story says that since a camel often carries a grudge, a man who has angered a camel is wise to throw a bundle of his clothes on the ground before trying to mount - so that the camel can tear and trample the clothes rather than the man.

If true, though, who can blame the camel? It lived in one of the world's harshest climes, carried loads that would have challenged the elephant, went without water for days on end - and then drank water that would poison a horse. Its master, meanwhile, drank its milk, fought battles from its back, made robes from its hair, bowstrings from its sinews and meat of its flesh. Surely, as one observer said, the camel was entitled to an occasional tantrum.

Daniel da Cruz, a veteran Middle East correspondent and magazine writer, is also the author of seven novels.

This article appeared on pages 42-48 of the March/April 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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