Wild Bactrian camel on road east of Yarkand

A Wild Bactrian Camel on the Southern Silk Road between Yarkand and Khotan.

The wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) is called havtgai ("flat") in Mongolian. It is closely related to the domesticated Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus). They share characteristics and locales. They are both large, even-toed ungulates native to the steppes of central Asia, with double hump (small and pyramid-shaped). Experts describe it as a separate species from the domesticated Bactrian camel due to its distinct genetic makeup. It is restricted in the wild to remote regions of the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts of Mongolia and Xinjiang. A few wild Bactrians still roam the Mangystau Province of southwest Kazakhstan and the Kashmir valley in India. Their habitat — arid plains and hills where water sources are scarce — have very little vegetation so shrubs are their main food source.

Differences between Camelus ferus and Camelus bactrianus Edit

It is still debated whether the wild Bactrian camel is a separate species or a subspecies (Camelus bactrianus ferus). Until recently, wild Bactrian camels were considered to have descended from domesticated Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) which escaped captivity or were returned to the wild. However, a 1.9% difference in Mitochondrial DNA suggests a divergence date of 0.7 million years, long before the start of domestication.

The wild Bactrian camel has been described as "relatively small, lithe, and slender-legged, with very narrow feet and a body that looks laterally compressed." Like its close relative, the domesticated Bactrian camel, it is one of the few mammals able to eat snow to provide itself with liquids in the winter. It can also survive on water even saltier than seawater – which no other large mammal in the world, including the domestic Bactrian camel, can tolerate.

Habitat Edit

Their habitat is in arid plains and hills where water sources are scarce, very little vegetation, and shrubs are their food source. Wild camels travel over long distances, seeking water in places close to mountains where springs are found, and hill slopes covered in snow could provide some moisture in winter. Size of the herds varies from 100 camels close hills but generally of 2-15 members in a group; this is reported to be due to arid environment and heavy poaching. As against about 2.5 million domestic Bactrian camels reported in Central Asia, the statistics for the wild Bactrian are limited to three pockets in Mongolia and China; about 650 in the Gobi desert in northwest China and 450 in the Mongolian desert.

In ancient times, wild Bactrian camels were seen from the great bend of the Yellow River extending west to the Southern Mongolia deserts and further to Northwest China and central Kazakhstan. In the 1800s, due to hunting for its meat and hide, its presence was noted in remote areas of the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts in Mongolia and China. In the 1920s, only remnant populations were recorded in Mongolia and China.

Description Edit

The habitats of the Bactrian camel have widely varying temperatures: the summer temperature ranges from 40-50 deg C (100 – 120 deg F) and winter temperature a low of -30 deg C (-22 deg F). Their long, narrow slit-like nostrils and thick eyelashes (double row of long eyelashes), and the ears with hairs provide protection against desert sandstorms. They have tough undivided soles with two large toes that spread wide apart, and a horny layer which enables them to walk on rough and hot stony or sandy terrain. Their body hair, thick and shaggy, changes colour to light brown or beige during winter. The legend that camels storing water in their stomachs is a misconception: though they have capacity to conserve water they cannot survive without water for long periods.

They are fully migratory and widely scattered, and move in groups of 6 to 20, depending on the food available, with a single adult male in the lead, and assemble near water points where larger groups can also be seen. Their population density is reported to be as low as 5 per 100 km2. Their lifespan is about 40 years and they breed during winter with an overlap into the rainy season. Females produce offspring starting at age 5, and thereafter in a cycle of 2 years.

Status Edit

The wild Bactrian camel is more critically endangered than the giant panda. John Hare in his 2009 book estimated that there were only about 900 of them left in the world. The London Zoological Society recognizes it as the eighth most endangered large mammal in the world, and it is on the critically endangered list. Observations made during five field expeditions starting in 1993 by John Hare and the United Kingdom-based Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF) suggest that the surviving populations may be facing an 80% decline within the next three generations. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) its status was critical in the 1960s and gradually declined to critically endangered (Criteria: A3de + 4ade) status in 2000-2004 (IUCN 2004). Research carried out by the WCPF in association with John Hare from 1993 onwards indicated that this species of camel could suffer an 80% reduction in numbers in the next 30 years.

Threats Edit

Wild Bactrians face many threats. The main threat is hunting: in the Gobi Reserve Area, 25 to 30 camels are reported to be poached for domestic use every year, and about 20 in the Arjin Shan Lop Nur Nature Sanctuary. Other threats include land mines laid in the salt water springs, scarcity of access to water (oases), attack by wolves, migration into domestic areas in search of grazing land, hybridization with domestic Bactrians resulting in infertile individuals which will attempt to reproduce for some 30 to 50 years unsuccessfully (an infertile bull could ward off viable bulls from a large number of females during its lifetime, though so far it has not been proven that this has ever happened), toxic effluent releases from illegal mining, re-designation of wildlife areas as industrial zones, and sharing grazing areas with domestic animals.

Gallery Edit