Camel's neglected potential
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CTA. 1986. Camel's neglected potential . Spore 5. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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By the year 2000 the potential deficit of meat production in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be between 3 and 8 million tonnes. This prediction has been made by international organizations such as the FAO, the World Bank and the UN Economic...
By the year 2000 the potential deficit of meat production in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be between 3 and 8 million tonnes. This prediction has been made by international organizations such as the FAO, the World Bank and the UN Economic Commission for Africa. The outlook is equally gloomy for milk production. According to data provided by the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) in Addis Ababa, the trade deficit in dairy products will reach between 2.5 and 4 million tonnes by the year 2000. It therefore comes as a surprise to learn that a potentially rich source of milk and meat production - the dromedary (Camel dromaderius), more commonly known as the onehumped camel-has been all but ignored by development programmes Nevertheless, some recent studies have been done on the potential for largescale camel rearing, and the commercialisation of camel meat for human consumption has already begun in East Africa. The manner in which the camel not only survives in a generally dry, nutritionally poor environment but remains productive is nothing short of remarkable. In this respect, camels are much more impressive than cattle, especially the exotic cattle breeds that have been imported into Africa. Furthermore, the camel - long known as the 'ship of the desert' - is an excellent pack and riding animal. Today's dromedary is a descendant of the genus Camelus which originated in North America. Both the two-humped camel (Camelus bactrianus) that is found primarily in East-Central Asia, and the humpless llama, which migrated to South America, share the same origin. Approximately 94 % of the estimated world population of camels are dromedaries, or one-humped camels. Five countries-Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti - account for 84 % of Africa's dromedaries and 60 % of the world's dromedaries. In West Africa, dromedaries are especially common in Niger, Mauritania and Mali. The world's camel population is estimated at 17 million, with more than 12 million in Africa. Research undertaken by the French Tropical Livestock and Veterinary Institute (IEMVT), and by the Director of Research for the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, Dr. Chema, has brought to our attention the multitude of specialized breeds of camel found throughout the world Camels have a great ability to travel long distances and to feed almost entirely from trees and shrubs. Furthermore, they tend to prune rather than strip vegetation and are known for contributing little to overgrazing, unlike cattle and goats. When pastures have already been grazed by other animals, camels are able to feed from heights not yet touched. 70 % of their feed comes from trees and shrubs, including thorny ones, whereas cattle depend on grasses for 80% of their feed Camels also have the ability to graze up to 80 km (50 miles) away from a water source and to stay there for several days depending on the water content of their forage. Such is not the case with cattle, not even with those breeds that make up traditional Sahelian herds. In the dry season, cattle cannot go farther than 15 km (10 miles) from a water source. Rendille pastoralists who live in Northern Kenya, have abandoned cattle rearing in favour of camels because of the degradation of pastures due to drought, overgrazing or both. The Pokot and Samburu people, also in Kenya, have begun to introduce camels into their cattle herds The ability of camels to withstand harsh climatic conditions is quite remarkable. During the recent sustained African droughts which inflicted losses of up to 80 % among some cattle herds, camel herds suffered losses of less than 20 %. According to a recent study undertaken in the Sahel, camel herds seem to maintain a stable core of adults aged between 5 to 12 years, who are particularly resistant. This partly explains why camel populations are able to recover quickly after periods of birth mortality. PHYSIOLOGICALLY ADAPTED Camels can survive in arid environments because of their unique physiology. They are able to withstand body temperature variations from 34 ºC (94 o F) in the morning to 41 ºC (105 o.8 F) in the evening, which enables them to have sufficient heat reserves to survive the bitterly cold desert nights. Unlike other warmblooded animals, camels do not waste their water reserves by sweating when it is hot. Camels are also known for their ability to drink large volumes of water in short periods of time: in Mauritania, for example, camels have been known to swallow 100 litres (over 20 gallons) of water in 7 minutes. Yet another physiological adaptation to the environment is their retention of urine. Whereas watering stimulates urination in cattle, camels are able to retain their water thanks to an antidiuretic hormone (ADH). They also have the capacity to recycle urea through their digestive system, which is a particularly effective survival mechanism during feed shortages. Finally, camels have a very low level of moisture loss through defecation. The camel's humps are used as fat reserves, and their narrow nostrils and long eye-lashes provide good protection against sandstorms and the sun. Furthermore, their lips, mouth and tongue are able to cope with the most thorny desert vegetation. MILK PRODUCTION According to an ILCA study, camels are at least twice as productive as cattle. They can produce considerable quantities of milk, especially when one considers their relatively small intake of forage. To produce one litre (1 3/4 pints) of milk, camels need 1.9 kg (4 pounds) of dry matter as opposed to 9 kg (18 pounds) for cattle Camels are thus able to produce 1,900 litres (422 gallons) of milk per year whilst cattle native to Africa produce only 300 litres (66 gallons) under similar conditions. Furthermore the lactation period for camels averages between 12 and 14 months whilst that of cattle is about 9 months. Finally, it should be noted that milk production by camels does not seem to decrease during the dry season whereas it does with cattle. MEAT PRODUCTION Very little camel meat is consumed in Africa and most of the animals slaughtered are old culls that were not raised for butchering. Nevertheiess, the yields are very good. In East Africa, especially in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, a substantial number of camels are raised for their meat. Their carcasses are exported to countries such as Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia. For most pastoralists in Africa. The consumption of camel meat is a luxury, but that is not the case elsewhere in the world. In India and the Soviet Union, for example, the respective governments have established large camel ranches. In the case of the Soviet Union, it is the two-humped camel rather than the dromedary that is used. In Africa, however, camels are reared more as a beast of burden than a producer of meat. Those animals that do reach the marketplace are often exhausted, wounded or sick. The only area in West Africa where meat production is emphasized is Northern Nigeria. It should also be remembered that camel blood, drawn periodically from live animals, is regularly consumed by several tribes in East Africa, such as the Rendille and Turkana people. SLOW HERD GROWTH There are, of course, a number of obstacles that need to be overcome before intensive camel rearing can be significantly improved. In their current state, camel herds reproduce rather slowly with a birth rate of about 165 per 1,000. The mortality of camels under two years old is high, and herd populations can fluctuate widely from one year to the next. This is due essentially to pathological factors that occur during the year, and to food availability. The fertility rate, that is the number of live births per fertile camel, averages about 42 %. This translates into an average of 28-30 months between births. Furthermore, camels do not begin to reproduce before the age of 5 to 7 years. Another physiological anomaly with camels is that ovulation is stimulated only by copulation. Thus artificial insemination does not seem, for the moment, to be feasible. However, it has been shown that camels which are well-fed on grasses have more frequent births due in part to higher sexual activity among males and greater resistance to disease. DISEASES Camels suffer from a number of diseases for which treatments are available. As the Koran states, trypanosomiasis and mange are the worst camel afflictions, it is also true that parasites have a considerable negative effect on the herds. According to a recent IEMVT study, haemonchosis is certainly the most serious gastro-intestinal infection that affects camels. Infected animals contaminate pastures causing the rapid spread of the disease. Some medications have been developed to deal with camel parasites. These treatments must be administered primarily to young camels aged between 6 months and 2 years who are victims of their first infection. Females should also be treated during pregnancy to limit the spread of Parasites and to favour lactation. Particular care should be taken during the rainy season as infestations by Haemonchus are frequent and serious at this time. At present, trypanosomiasis is rarely a problem, at least in the Sahel although one form (Trypanosomia evansi) which does affect camels is not transmitted by the tsetse fly. Finally, mange is also a health threat to camels but it can be easily treated by insecticides or injections of antiparasitic drugs. FUTURE OF CAMEL REARING According to the most recent studies, in particular those of Dr. Chema, there are no major barriers to intensive camel rearing for food production. Whereas cattle and smaller ruminants are considered by some to be one of the causes of desertification, local knowledge portrays camels as good producers who do little-environmental damage Certain conditions are required, to ensure that a camel herd is productive. The most important is that there should be between 20-40 % males and 40 % fertile females. Under traditional, non-intensive raising, herds grow by about 10 % per year. This weak growth rate is due to several factors including low fertility, high infant mortality and poor nutrition. Improved feeding conditions can reduce the period between births to less than 2 years. RESEARCH Many aspects of camel rearing are still poorly understood and call for further research. For example, we need to know more about the variability of mortality rate according to age, fertility, herd composition, and we also need more detailed studies on food requirements. In France, the IEMVT has undertaken some studies on camels and D. Richard, D. Planchevault and J.F. Giovannetti have just completed a report of their mission on camel production in East-Central Niger. The UN has also recently granted financial support to ILCA for a detailed bibliographic study on camels and an update on on-going research in Africa. The goal of this project is to help design future research programmes. A team was established at ILCA in 1984, under the direction of R.T. Wilson, to study camel productivity, particularly under traditional conditions, and to propose ways of improving. ILCA researchers are also engaged in comparative studies between camels and other ruminants, both wild and domestic. Finally, ILCA is currently looking at the seasonal nature of camel reproduction in the hope of being able to accelerate the reproductive cycle. There is much work to be done before the camel's potential can be more fully realized in Africa, but there is no reason to believe that improvement methodology developed for other forms of livestock cannot be successfully applied to the camel. It is encouraging to see that some development agencies are now taking an interest in camel improvement, and it will be interesting to see what level of success these programmes will be able to achieve.
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