Wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus)

Also known as: Mongolian wild camel
  
French: Chameau De Bactriane, Chameau Domestique
Spanish: Camello Bactriano
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderCetartiodactyla
FamilyCamelidae
GenusCamelus (1)
SizeLength: 3 m
Shoulder height: 1.8 – 2.3 m
Weight600 – 1000 kg (2)

Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Previously thought to be the ancestor of all domestic camels (3), recent genetic studies have shown that the wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) is in fact a distinct species, with an independent evolutionary history to its domestic relative (4).

The wild Bactrian camel is extremely well adapted for the harsh desert climate that it inhabits. Sandstorm damage is reduced by the dense eyelashes and the narrow nostrils that can be closed tightly against the storms (5). The two toes are connected with an undivided sole and are able to spread widely, allowing the camel greater ability to walk on sandy ground (2).

With a characteristic camel body shape, the wild Bactrian camel has a long curved neck, long legs and a split upper lip (6), borne at the end of the long triangular face (2). The coat of the wild Bactrian camel tends to be lighter than its domestic relative and is a sandier grey-brown colour (5). The coat of this species' becomes thick and shaggy in winter when temperatures can fall to -30 degrees Celsius (5), and is lost in big sections as temperatures increase (2).

Wild Bactrian camels were previously found across the deserts of southern Mongolia and northwestern China, into Kazakhstan (4). Years of persecution have reduced the species to fragmented populations, three in northwest China and one in Mongolia (1). The largest population is currently found in the Gashun Gobi Desert (Lop Nur) in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (1).

Found in the arid and sparsely vegetated Gobi and Gashun Gobi Deserts where habitat ranges from rocky mountainous regions to plains and high sand dunes (1).

Wild Bactrian camels are highly migratory, and herds will travel vast distances in search of food and water sources (4). Herds of up to 100 individuals may gather in the autumn at the beginning of the rutting season, usually in the more mountainous regions where there is a greater availability of water (4). Outside of the mating season, family groups are more common usually consisting of between 6 and 30 animals led by a dominant male (2). Gestation takes between 12 and 14 months and females usually give birth to a single young between March and April (2).

Camels feed mainly on shrubs; their humps act at as a rich fat store that allows them to go for long periods without food (5). They are also able to go without water (2), but despite the common misconception this is not stored in the camels’ humps. Once water is located, camels are able to drink as much as 57 litres at one time in order to replenish reserves they have lost (2). To conserve water, camels produce dry faeces and little urine and allow their body temperature to fluctuate, therefore reducing the need to sweat (5). In some areas, these camels have developed the remarkable ability of drinking salt-water slush; they are the only mammals capable of this feat (3).

Wild Bactrian camels have been heavily hunted for their meat and hide over the centuries (4), and today only a few highly fragmented populations persist (1). These camels continue to be persecuted mainly as they are seen as competition with domestic livestock for the precious water and grazing of the desert (1). Bactrian camels persisted in China even though the Gashun Gobi desert (Lop Nur) was used as a nuclear test site for 45 years (3), today further habitat loss has occurred with the development of a gas pipe-line in the north of the reserve (1) and highly toxic illegal mining (3). Competition with domestic camels and livestock as well as hybridisation with domestic camels poses a further threat to the survival of the unique Bactrian camel (1). The total population is predicted to undergo an 80% reduction over the next three generations, prompting the species to be listed as Critically Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) (1).

Areas of the Gobi and Gashun Gobi desert (Lop Nur), where the Bactrian camel remain, are protected by the Great Gobi Reserve in Mongolia which was established in 1982, and by the newly established national reserve ‘Lop Nur Wild Camel Reserve’ in China (1) (7). Both governments have agreed to protect this trans-boundary migrating species in a historic move (3). A captive breeding programme based in Mongolia and run by the Wild Camel Protection Foundation began in 2003, in an effort to safeguard the future of this fascinating animal (3). Recent studies of dromedary (one-humped) camels (Camelus dromedarius) have revealed an extraordinary immune system; camel milk has been found to arrest diabetes in humans and has proved to be a substitute for insulin, with these results prompting hopes that further studies of the wild Bactrian camel may yield similarly remarkable discoveries (3) (7).

For more information on the wild Bactrian camel, see:

Authenticated by John Hare of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation
http://www.wildcamels.com/, November 2004.

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2010)
    http://iucnredlist.org/
  2. Ultimate ungulate (November 2002)
    http://www.ultimateungulate.com/Artiodactyla/Camelus_bactrianus.html
  3. Wild Camel Protection Foundation (November 2002)
    http://www.wildcamels.com/
  4. Burger, P., Silbermayr, K., Charruau, P., Lipp, L., Dulamtseren, E., Yadmasuren, A. and Walzer, C. (in press). Genetic status of wild camels (Camelus ferus) in Mongolia.
  5. Animal Info (November 2002)
    http://www.animalinfo.org/species/artiperi/camebact.htm
  6. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. Hare, J. (2004) Pers. comm.