The critically endangered wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) is so rare and lives in such remote areas that it was only recognized (after a few years of scientific debate) as its own species in 2008, decades after China started using one of its few habitats, the the Lop Nur Desert, to test nuclear bombs.
Amazingly, this two-humped camel appears to be no worse for wear following the tests, but now more humans are entering those once-remote areas. With hunting, mineral mining and other threats on the rise, the camel's numbers have dropped 50 percent in the past 25 years to just 1,000 animals in two distinct populations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources predicts another 80 percent population drop in the next 45 to 50 years.
A captive breeding program was begun in the camel's other habitat, Mongolia's Gobi Desert, in 2003. But the camels breed slowly—one calf at a time, with a 13-month gestation period—and increasing their population has remained an elusive goal. After eight years there are just 20 camels in the captive-breeding program.
But now the Camel Reproduction Center in the United Arab Emirates, which in 2009 produced the world's first cloned camel calf, could come to the Chinese camel's aid. The center has perfected a technique to get champion female racing dromedary camels (C. dromedarius) to ovulate more than one egg at a time, something that rarely occurs naturally. The mothers are injected with hormones to get them to ovulate. The eggs are then flushed out of the mothers with a saline solution, fertilized and implanted into nonracing surrogates. The technique allows the embryos' biological mothers to keep racing while passing their genes on to more than the usual single calf at a time.
"Twenty years ago almost nothing was known about the camel's reproductive system," Lulu Skidmore, director of the Camel Reproduction Center, told the the Abu Dhabi paper The National on July 6. "We would be very pleased and proud if the technology we helped to develop in camels here in the U.A.E. helped save an endangered species elsewhere in the world."
The Wild Camel Protection Foundation, which was founded to help preserve the wild Bactrian camel and established the captive breeding program, is now raising funds to bring the technique to China. It is an expensive task, as the process costs an estimated $2,725 per camel, and that does not even count the cost of building enclosures, buying medical devices and training local veterinarians to use the U.A.E. technique.
If enough money is raised to proceed, the embryos may be implanted in domesticated Bactrian camels (C. bactrianus), which are genetically different from their wild cousins but close enough to serve as surrogates. There are an estimated 1.4 million domesticated Bactrian camels in China, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. (In addition, an estimated 14 million one-humped dromedary camels live throughout western Asia.)
According to the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, the wild Bactrian camels may have separated from what became their domesticated counterparts 700,000 years ago. The wild species has adapted to be able to drink brackish desert salt water with a much greater saline content than seawater, something no other camel species can do.
Photo by Jerrold Bennett, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license