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Many years ago on a family holiday on Tenerife we went to the zoo. There we saw an ugly, smelly creature with an oddly shaped rough hair coat with a penchant for spitting. He had a couple of camels and was offering rides on them. I went on one with one of our daughters and it was a very slow and uncomfortable journey. Camels away from the desert are like fish out of water. 

Now having had the opportunity to see them in their home lands, I can see how fantastically adapted they are for desert life. The camels in Saudi are the dromedary variety - one hump. (Bactrian two-humped ones live further east in Asia around the Gobi desert). Camels have wide flat hooves which spread weight on the sand, and most of the time they plod along with three feet on the ground to distribute the load. To combat the effects of sandstorms they can breathe through their noses which have filters, and they have third eyelids which helps to keep their eyes operational. Their metabolic system is incredibly water efficient, and if need be they can exist on the moisture content of the dry-looking desert plants. At the other end, what comes out is so dry that the herders can use the poo straight away for burning, and the pee is so concentrated that its viscosity is that of a syrup. Camel pee is also used in local medicines, ointments and shampoo. Their core body temperature can vary by 15 degrees, which is extraordinary if you consider how out of sorts we humans feel if we are even a single degree up or down. When resting, they will sit down and fold their legs under them, and there is also a pronounced sternum which they can rest on the ground to keep the main torso off the hot ground, and therefore cooler and ventilated. The hump is a fat depository which they can use as a source of energy and moisture if no food and water is available. And when there is water available they have an amazing intake capability - one can hoover up to 50 gallons in a pitstop as short as 3 minutes. That's a full bathtub.

I sometimes see a nomadic camelherd near my compound who has about two dozen of the beasts.He moves his tent every other day and his camels move on and chomp on the sparse scrub weeds that try to grow around here. I was intruiged to know, in this day and age, when the average Saudi owns two cars why so many people still keep camels. I could not see any value in keeping them as a domesticated animal. So I asked some folk what it was all about. Although all the Saudis I know are city dwellers, most are only a few generations on from the simple life when camels provided some of their essentials - hides, meat*, milk,  medicine and transport. Some like to take breaks from city life to get back to nature, and being involved with camels plays a part of that.

Camel breeding can be a serious affair. I know from my friends in the farming community around Biggar what pride and passion they take in sheep, cattle and Clydesdale horse stockmanship, showing, judging etc; that this is an important part of their social fabric. [advert break - Biggar Show 2016 is on 23rd July, and it is acclaimed as the best one day agricultural show in the country]. So it is in Arabian lands with camels. Whilst I have not seen such events, I am told that there are regular camel meets and they are exhibited by their owners / herders. Camels are judged as anything else is - size, proportions, how they move, looks (yes - they are groomed, and particular attention is paid to the eyelashes). A "pretty" camel is worth far more at auction.    

Then there is camel racing all over the Middle East. The sport of Sheikhs is ancient, and camels can gain speeds of 40mph. Races are wilder than organised horse racing with over 50 camels on the track at times. Running is not a natural function for the camel, so they are bred, selected, trained and groomed for racing, and fed an enriched diet. A top racing camel can be sold for breeding for £500,000. As you can imagine saddling and racing on a camel is tricky (I found even on a walking one in Tenerife to be very difficult), so traditionally young children were used, sometimes imported illegally and forced to ride camels. When the camels run their legs go everywhere and the ride is very rough. They child jockeys were roped on, and sometimes even velcroed to the camels. Sadly, there was a very high accident rate and maiming or death of the jockey was not uncommon. Fortunately in the last few years robot jockeys have been invented and developed and are now commonplace at the camel races. The owners / trainers drive alongside the race in 4x4 trucks and control the robots' screams (mimicking the children's terror) and the rate of whipping. Who would have thought it?

All camels in KSA are owned, there are no wild ones here. (There are nearly a million wild ones in Australia which are feral after imported transport camels were turned loose after their use ceased in the mid 20th century). All camels here are branded for identity and ownership. Overnight they are kept tethered or penned by their herders. Railways and camels don't mix. The railways have substantial fences, but the Bedouin have been known to break the fences to cross with their camels, or even to let the camels graze on the protected ground inside the fenceline where the scrub can grow un-nibbled. The railways have reported frequent camel strikes, sometimes causing damage to the locomotives and usually fatal for the camels. Owners have been known to submit claims to the railway for killing their camels (often the prize beast and very valuable of course), alleging the railway had not maintained the fence sufficiently well. Railway staff have also reported hitting camel and when checking for damage being confronted with Bedouin with guns. If the police are summoned, by the time they get there, the remaining camels and owners may have disappeared, and the remaining camel carcass(es) might also have had their branded ID cut out. Delay attribution here isn't as formal as in Britain (railways are vertically integrated), but if it were, there would be several thousand minutes a year attributed to "I8" cause. Where locations of persistent camel incursion are known, and fencing is not guaranteed to be secure, temporary speed restrictions are introduced, which of course add to journey time and delays. Yet another challenge to running railways in this harsh environment.       

A final bit of research confirmed that camels have been associated with military use for thousands of years in the middle east and the Indian subcontenent. To this day, the Indian Border Security Force retains a camel corps for use in the northern areas where roads are poor.

* Allegedly not a good idea to eat raw camel liver - it is a source of bubonic plague! 




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