Unless you live in Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia, you may not be very used to the image of camels in the countryside. You may have seen them when on holiday, or perhaps you may have ridden them during an exotic event at a zoo or a tourist attraction, but you may not look at them as if they were commonly farmed animals like cows or sheep. However, camels have been farmed for millennia in many parts of the world, and they have become part of the rural landscape there.

In the regions mentioned above, camels have been exploited for many reasons. They have been farmed for their meat, milk, or wool, and they have been exploited as “vehicles”, as work “machines”, and even as sports “tools”. Like many animals farmed by humans, camels have undergone a process of domestication that has changed their body and behaviour, so many of them — although not all as in the case of horses — have become domesticated animals. As such, they have been subject to abuse, and for many years they have been suffering from ruthless exploitation. 

As there have not been many undercover investigations looking at this issue, the truth of exploiting camels is very little known in the West, so we will reveal what we know about it in this article.

Who Are the Camels

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Camels are even-toed ungulates of the genus Camelus that have one or two distinctive fatty deposits known as “humps” on their backs. Contrary to popular belief, camels do not directly store water in their humps, which are reservoirs of fatty tissue, but when this tissue is metabolized, it produces a greater mass of water than that of the fat processed. 

There are seven species of the family Camelidae: the true camels, and the “New World” camelids (the llama, the alpaca, the guanaco, and the vicuña). There are three species of true camels, two of them being domesticated: Camelus dromedarius, the one-humped dromedary (94% of the world’s camel population, and they are mainly found in the Middle East, Sahara Desert, South Asia, and now Australia after being recently introduced there), Camelus bactrianus, the two-humped Bactrian camel (6% of the population, and they are found in Central Asia, including the historical region of Bactria, the area south of the Oxus River and north of the mountains of the Hindu Kush), and Camelus ferus, the wild Bactrian camel (found in areas of northwest China and Mongolia).

The evolutionary connection between the New World camelids and the camels started in the American continent. The ancestor of modern camels, Paracamelus, migrated to Eurasia from North America via Beringia between 7.5 and 6.5 million years ago. It was in Eurasia where humans began domesticating camels. The wild Bactrian camel is not the ancestor of all domestic camels, but the only surviving wild species that was never domesticated. The two wild ancestors’ species of the two domesticated species are now extinct. The probable ancestor of dromedaries is the now-extinct Thomas’ camel (C. thomasi).

Although feral populations exist in Australia, India and Kazakhstan, the only populations of true wild camels are the wild Bactrian camel of the Gobi Desert, a cold desert and grassland region in northern China and southern Mongolia. The hair of the wild Bactrian camel is always sandy-coloured and shorter and sparser than that of domestic Bactrian camels. The wild Bactrian camel is slightly smaller than the domestic Bactrian camel, with smaller, lower, and more conical humps. They live in herds of up to 30 individuals, and they are migratory. Their lifespan is up to 40 years. This species is now critically endangered (threatened by climate change, hunting, and human encroachment into their habitat), with less than 950 individuals still alive. Interestingly, the wild Bactrian camel is the only mammal who can survive on water saltier than seawater. The Wild Camel Protection Foundation was established in 1997, with the sole aim of protecting wild Bactrian camels.

A full-grown adult dromedary camel is 1.85 m tall at the shoulder and 2.15 m at the hump, but  Bactrian camels can be a foot taller. The male dromedary camel has a dulla, an organ in his throat with an inflatable sac that he extrudes from his mouth when in a rut. It is used to assert dominance and attract females. Camelids are the only ungulates to mate in a sitting position, and the gestation period of camels is 14 months. Newborn camels are born without humps, and they would reach full adult size when they are about seven years old.

Camels are well adapted to live in arid areas (hot or cold). They can withstand long periods without any external source of water thanks to several biological adaptations. Dromedaries can drink only once every 10 days even under very hot conditions and can lose up to 30% of their body mass due to dehydration, but their red blood cells are oval rather than circular, which helps their flow during dehydration and makes them better at withstanding high osmotic pressure. When camels find water, they can drink up to 40 gallons in one go. Camels rarely sweat, even when ambient temperatures reach 49 °C, saving water this way. When camels exhale, water vapour becomes trapped in their nostrils and is reabsorbed into the body. The kidneys and intestines of a camel are very efficient at reabsorbing water. Also, the camels’ thick coats insulate them from the intense heat radiated from desert sand, and they can shut their nostrils during sandstorms. Double rows of extra-long eyelashes help them keep sand out of their eyes.

Like all ungulates, camels are herbivores who eat mainly leaves and ruminate them for a long time so they can digest them properly. They have thick lips which let them forage for thorny plants common in deserts. Camels are social animals who live in herds, usually consisting of a dominant adult male, females, and their young. Males who may have been chased out of the group may create their own bachelor groups. They communicate through bellows and moans and blow on each other’s faces as greetings. They spit as a defense mechanism, but this is more projectile vomiting than spit. Camels can run at up to 65 km/h (40 mph) in short bursts and sustain speeds of up to 40 km/h (25 mph). The average life expectancy of a camel is 40 to 50 years.

The Domestication of Camels

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Dromedaries may have first been domesticated by humans in Somalia or South Arabia sometime during the 3rd millennium BCE, while the Bactrian camel in Central Asia (Iran) around 2,500 BCE. Although two of the three extant species of camels are domesticated, from a biological point of view these are in the first stages of domestication. This means their bodies have not changed much (although as their wild ancestors are extinct now, we do not know how much — other than getting bigger), and they still have relatively high levels of genetic variation. However, the most likely change that has occurred is that they are more tamed and less aggressive to humans. This, unfortunately, has opened the door to being forced to do all sorts of unpleasant work.

Probably the first type of exploitation domestic camels experienced was being used in transportation as vehicles, pulling carts, carrying goods and people. They were extensively used traversing long trade routes, like the Silk Road, through harsh terrain no other animal could cope with. This means that the camels’ ability to survive long periods without water and survive sand storms and desert heat, was pushed to the limit forcing these animals to experience conditions beyond their comfort zone and having to survive carrying heavy weights they were not adapted to carry. And if the animals refused to obey to work, they would be repeatedly hit with sticks. Working camels are being subjected to violence to force them to work doing things they don’t want to do.

All this abuse still happens today. Camels across India are used for exhausting work, including transporting goods, pulling heavy carts, and giving rides to tourists. Handlers often push metal pegs through camels’ noses to control them, which as the sun heats this metal, ends up burning their flesh and causing infections. Additionally, the weights packed onto camels’ backs from rides and carriages can cause painful wounds.

PETA investigators exposed the notorious Birqash Camel Market in Egypt showing footage of the horrific abuse of camels sold for meat, farm work, or use at top tourism sites. After a frightening and exhausting trip to this market jammed inside lorries, camels are forcefully unloaded and then bought, sold, and bartered. Handlers carry sticks and routinely hit the camels, sometimes until they’re left with bloody wounds. The animals’ legs are bound so they cannot move around. 

The tourism industry also brutally exploits camels. In June 2023, a distressing video surfaced showing a young camel tethered to its mother by a muzzle being trained to a life of servitude transporting tourists through the volcanic pathways in the Spanish Canary Islands. On two occasions, two adult men sit in a saddle on either side of the camel’s back and urge the mother in front to move. The young camel tries to follow, urged on by another man slapping its haunch, but on both occasions, he grunts in distress. its legs buckle and it collapses back to a kneeling position. Like in the case of horses, camels can be “broken in” for riding from three years of age. 

Most of today’s 13 million domesticated dromedaries are in India and the Horn of Africa, and about one million domesticated Bactrian camels range from the Middle East to China. It is estimated that there are over one million feral dromedaries in Australia, descended from those introduced as a method of transport in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A small population of introduced feral dromedaries and Bactrians can be found in the Southwestern United States, and they are descendants of escapees that had been exploited as draft animals in mines. Because of the increased exploitation of camels, their number has been continuously increasing in the last few decades and it is expected to surpass 60 million in 25 years. This is, mainly, due to the growth of camel farming on an increasingly hotter planet. 

Farming Camels

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Another way domestic camels are exploited is by farming them for milk or meat. Camel milk is a staple food of desert nomad tribes, but it has slowly started gaining popularity in the West. Currently, the camel milk industry is said to be worth over ten billion dollars annually. In the US, camel milk is now available in many major grocery stores. In the last five years, a few companies have successfully introduced commercial camel farming in the US, and even in the UK where there is a camel farm in Warwickshire. Many camels who are reared on farms in the US are said to be farmed by the Amish and Mennonites. In 2017, world production of fresh camel milk was 2.85 million tonnes. Somalia and Kenya were responsible for 64% of the global total production, with Mali and Ethiopia being other significant producers. The world’s annual camel milk production has also increased from 0.63 million tonnes in 1961 to 3.15 million tonnes in 2020. Australia’s first camel dairies opened in 2014, and the number has been growing ever since.

Like the cows in the dairy cow industry, female camels in the camel milk industry would be forcibly impregnated to continue producing milk, their calves would be removed so they don’t drink the milk intended for them, and they will be killed young after they are “spent” and their milk production declines.

The intensification of the camel dairy industry started 15 to 20 years ago, with the introduction of machine milking in some farms in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Now they have been followed by farms in Australia, Europe, and the US. The world’s first large-scale camel dairy farm was the Emirates Industry for Camel Milk and Products (EICMP). This means that more and more camels are being kept in intensive environments with less space to move and an increase in the risk of getting infectious diseases (camels suffer from a range of diseases, some of which are zoonotic, the most notorious being  MERS-CoV caused by one of the types of coronaviruses).

Approximately 3.3 million camels and camelids are slaughtered each year for meat worldwide. The fat in the hump is used to make the khli (preserved meat) of mutton, beef, or camel. Camel meat is mainly eaten in Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and other arid regions. Camel blood is also consumed by pastoralists in northern Kenya. Australia has exported camel meat to the Middle East but also to Europe and the US. In countries like India, commercial farming of camels has dwindled since a ban was put on camel meat. A recent market research report indicates that the camel meat market is projected to grow by USD 74.5 million from 2021 to 2026, with a compound annual growth rate of 5.26%. The more the camel meat farms develop, they will drive the evolution of the domestic breeds to make them bigger and fatter than the average camel (as has been happening with any domestic animal bred for meat production), and all camels in this industry would still be killed young as for the farmers it is a waste of resources to keep feeding them after they reached the maximum size.

In addition to farming camels for meat and milk, the Bactrian Camels are also farmed for their skin to obtain hair, wool, or leather. Camel wool is a major export of Mongolia. Raw or semi-processed camel wool is also produced in Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and China. Camel hair jackets became fashionable among polo players in Europe. Pure camel hair was used for Western garments from the 17th century onwards and in the 19th century, a mixture of wool and camel hair became more popular. Camel hair is often promoted as sustainable but most of it comes from countries with no animal welfare laws or enforcement, and the camels will still be killed when they are no longer useful to the exploiters.

Other Forms of Exploitation of Camels

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Between 500 and 100 BCE, Bactrian camels began to be used for military purposes, being sent to their death in many human wars. The East Roman Empire used auxiliary camel-riding forces known as dromedarii. The camels were used mostly in combat because of their ability to scare off horses at close range. Like in the case of horses, they are still used in modern times for military purposes. In the 19th century, the United States Army established the U.S. Camel Corps, stationed in California, France created a méhariste camel corps in 1912 as part of the Armée d’Afrique in the Sahara, in 1916, the British created the Imperial Camel Corps, and The Border Security Force (BSF) of India was still using camels in 2012. 

For centuries, camels have been forced to race each other for entertainment.  Camel races have been practiced as a traditional Middle Eastern “sport” since Medieval times, traced back to the 7th century CE in the Arabian Peninsula. Today, it is still popular in Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, Mongolia and Australia. Professional camel racing, like horse racing, has an associated betting industry too. Many camel racing tracks were also constructed in the United Arab Emirates during the 1980s, including famous tracks Al-Wathba, near Abu Dhabi, and Nad Al-Shiba near Dubai. The Camel Cup is held at Alice Springs which is the second biggest prize purse camel race in Australia. As with all sports using animals, camel racing is a cruel activity, as not only the animals can fall and injure themselves, but they are repeatedly hit with sticks to make them run faster. As part of their “training”, camels suffer a practice called “hobbling”, in which, for up to 12 hours, camels can be immobilised by either tying the camel’s legs to one another or tying one front leg in a bent position. They are also often subjected to nose pegging, where a hole is punched or seared through the nose, and a wooden peg is fed through the hole from the inside out. Goads (spiked sticks) and electric jiggers are also used to direct the camels by causing them pain. 

At the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, in Saudi Arabia, camels are paraded as competing trophies and are judged on their lips and humps. As part of the camel festival, these animals are forced to race. 

Camels are also forced to fight each other as a betting event. Camel fighting (also known as camel wrestling) is practiced in Afghanistan and Türkiye. In the latter, they are organised primarily in small Turkish villages around the Aegean Sea, and the event begins when two male camels are marched around each other by their guardians. The camels’ mouths are tied shut to make sure the animals do not bite each other. As in the case of bulls and horse fighting, a female in heat is brought into the arena to excite the males and provoke the fight — which, in essence, makes these types of events a form of sexual abuse. In Türkiye, Camels wear all sorts of padding, while in Afghanistan they are naked. There are three ways to declare a winner: the first way is for one camel to chase the other out of the arena, the second is for the dominant camel to make the other vocalise in frustration, and the third is if the losing camel stumbles. In any of these situations, the camels are bound to experience great distress.

The 40th International Camel Wrestling Festival was held in Selcuk, part of the Aegean province of Izmir, Türkiye, in 2022, with 152 camels used. Gulgun Hamamcioglu, the Izmir representative for the Animal Rights Federation (HAYTAP), said this to CNN about it: “Please let’s all together stop this picture of shame, this scene that makes us ashamed of humanity.” 

The feral camels who exist have also been unfairly persecuted. On 8th January 2020, the South Australian Department for Environment and Water began a five-day cull of the feral camels in the area, and professional shooters killed between 4,000 to 5,000 camels from helicopters. Sometimes farmers are the ones who kill them if they enter their land, and sell their carcasses for profit. About 800 feral camels are culled every year on Prenti Downs, a cows station about 1,200 kilometres northeast of Perth, Australia, and their flesh is sold for pet food.

If that was not enough, camels are also exploited by the zoo and circus industries, forcing them to become captive  “exhibits” for life or shameful circus acts. In September 2018, a frightened camel at Syria Shrine Circus in Pittsburgh sent six injured children and one adult to the hospital, after he became spooked while giving rides and a child threw a shovel at him. 

Camels have been exploited in so many ways that all individuals of two of their three species that still exist are now domesticated species used and abused by people in many countries.  Unfortunately, as the planet gets hotter, their exploitation is likely to increase as they may end up replacing other animals currently farmed for food, such as cows. 

Bad times lie ahead for the camel nation.  

Jordi Casamitjana
“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.