Who knew that the world of camelids, an even-toed ungulate (Artiodactyla), was so fascinating? The answer, of course, is probably a third of the world’s population what with India, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa leading the way. In 1856 thirty-four were landed in Texas at the direction of U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to become the United States Camel Corps (a draft animal!) They were to be used to settle, and subdue, the West, an experiment put paid by lobbying military mule suppliers and that bugaboo, the American Civil War. (Jeff Davis, in case you forgot, changed his allegiance.) Even with a small population these camels and their descendants (plus some privately introduced commercial stock) managed to hang on until the 20th century. Living in my state of New Mexico a young, then unknown, Douglas MacArthur heard about a wild camel wandering near Fort Selden in 1885.
Imported as work animals into central Australia in the 19th century the now-feral dromedaries in the Land Down-Under reached a population of one million. Between 2009 and 2013 an extermination program reduced that number to 300,000. These stocks are the only wild dromedaries on the planet.
The framing of the question in my opening sentence means we also have to include the southern hemisphere of the New World. Llamas, vicuñas, guanacos and alpacas are kith and kin to the standard camel most of us know – or think we know. Scientists have also created a cama, a camel-lama hybrid, using camel semen injected into a llama! They have no hump and are bigger than a llama and smaller than a camel. There was no practical purpose to this experiment, as such, more than to test if the Old World and New World denizens are, in fact, the same species.
Not more than two weeks before we left for India in February I was amused to hear that 12 contestants at the beauty contest at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rimah, Saudi Arabia had been ignominiously tossed from the competition. Owners were discovered to be cheats; their crime heinous beyond all understanding: they had been injecting their charges’ lips and eyelids with botox – yes, that’s right, the same chemical women use to enhance their looks for us menfolk, enhancing lips to bee-stung proportions and plumping up spaces to render goddess-like anatomies. Confused? Oh… did I forget to mention I am writing here of camel contestants, not the fairer sex of our own species. (I wonder if I can slightly enlarge my old camel hair overcoat with a judicious application of botox?)
If you have ever been up close and personal (OK, maybe not that personal) with a camel you will see they have lovely eyes topped with hooded, come-hither lids rimmed with long lashes. I well remember this one female in Kenya… but I digress.
In my unfolding camelid geography above I did not mean to slight the largest of the species, Camelus Ferus, the wild Bactrian, but these magnificent beasts are not found in India, the focus of this essay to which I am slowly humping. Alas, wild Bactrians are scarce on the ground in their native habitat, too. The last time I was in Mongolia’s Gobi desert I was told there were only 400 wild ones remaining.
Additionally, there is the two-humped domesticated Bactrian (C. bactrianus with a population of two million). It is it’s own species making a total of three living species under the genus Camelus. Aside from slight, invisible genetic differences with this domesticated variety, wild Bactrians are able to drink very saline winter slushies from semi-frozen Gobi salt-pans. From this they seem to suffer no ill effect and it is something their more numerous domesticated cousins cannot do. Bactrians are also one of the few animals able to eat snow to provide their water needs when liquid fresh water or salt slushies are not available. They accomplish this feat using advanced physics – the principal of latent heat, the hidden energy supplied or extracted to change the state of a substance without changing its temperature. This means heat is taken from the camel to melt the snow into water they can then utilize. It is an energy-intensive process so they eat only a little snow at a time.
With your elementary camel knowledge now in order we may proceed to the story at hand: our visit to India’s National Research Centre on Camel, Bikaner. It is a slightly awkward name, true, but it is what is on the campus signs and letterhead so I defer to the Centre’s self-identification (tho the amply represented OCD in me desperately wanted to attack the signs and paint “the” between “on” and “Camel”. My failure to muster up the courage to do so is something that will haunt the rest of my days, no matter I had no ready coloring agent left behind my ears from the Holi Festival. A writer and traveler’s life is not an easy one, fraught as it is by encounters with lapses in grammar that can tear one’s heart out. Every time I read the signs I was sure I detected a disturbance in The Force.)
Be that as it may, at NRCC, the soothing acronym for the Centre, one will learn tons about our friend, C dromedarius, the Ship of the Desert. I would bet dollars-to-donuts that most of you did not know there are four kinds of camels in Rajasthan. They roughly correspond to our more familiar Percheron or Clydesdale horse, a Ferrari, the Holstein cow and, for the sake of a one-on-one comparison, the bovine we call a Jersey. The corresponding camels are the Bikaneri, Jaisalmeri, Kachchhi and Mewari. And, by the by, there are two ‘hs’ in the third type; I am disappointed you would think I could make such an error. Perhaps we cannot be pen pals after all.
As we walked the camel world, absorbing minutiae such as a dry and thirsty camel may slurp down its 200 litres (53 gallons) in three minutes, an enormous male was indicated, standing in his outdoor stall. His legs were hobbled. Our guide said he was a particularly ornery and nasty bad boy. A big bastard he proved to be when I walked closer to take his portrait and he pivoted away facing west leaving me with only an eastern view. Several times I jockeyed for a better angle without getting too close but he deftly rotated away, giving me the stink eye as he continued to ruin a perfectly good shot. I believe I profaned god in a moment of pique.
Not being privy to the dromedary tongue, I could be wrong but I think he uttered something about Camelid Union, Local 666, suggesting he refuse to pose for the western infidel seeking to monetize his good studly looks for monetary gain that will not be shared.
As one of the Centre’s remits is the selective breeding of a number of the 314 camels currently in its care, we were fortunate to be visiting during the rut. Camels, if you must know, are the only ungulates that mate in a sitting position and the female does not ovulate until semen is present in the vagina, a sort of cart-before-the-horse-scenario. Modesty prevents me from writing more. That, plus the fact that breeding is a man-controlled affair and, darn it all, we did not actually get to view any couplings, tho you would certainly be amazed at the size and length of the extremity the young and hip would probably call a male camel’s junk.
We did get to hear many examples of the male mating call, to which the females were all ears, each pointing toward the sounds of particular males. I managed to get a recording of this remarkable sound and will try to figure out how to edit and post it in the future. It is an incredibly deep rumble that carries a great distance. The closer I stood to a braying male the more physically palpable the rumble. I was reminded of the low decibel notes of whales with their oceanic song moving through the vastness of their seas. It is said that the notes of a male singing off the coast of Maine can be picked up on the other side of the Atlantic! What I find extraordinary, and did not know until looking up camelids a moment ago to find out if I was correct in naming all seven members of the species, is that aquatic cetacea such as whales evolved from artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates, leading modern taxonomists to sometimes combine these as Cetartiodactyla. My brain leap about the power of the male camel’s voicing does, therefore, have a relationship to that of the whales. “Fascinating, Jim… highly logical.”
A male camel, let’s call him Joe for the sake of anthropomorphizing, does this auditory magic through his dulla, an inflatable sac in his throat. He projects this sac from his mouth during rut, moving air to create the sound. I did wonder why one male’s tongue looked so strange, swollen and pink lolling out the side of his mouth! The actual camel tongue is a barbarous affair able to eat leaves off acacia trees protected by two-inch thorns. They happily chew threw it all.
(Then again, as I ruminate, I realize camels are always chewing because they have cuds they regurgitate from their four-chambered stomachs. Chewing a cud puts Camel Joe on my ritually clean list as a possible meal but this is negated by the fact that his feet, thank Yahweh, are not possessed of the all-important split, or cloven, hoof. Leviticus, for us, the Chosen, is nothing if not thorough: pigs, cloven but no cud; rabbits, cud but not cloven. And so it goes. When I went to college I left these laws and crossed over to the dark side. Muslims, notably, do eat camel meat and justify it by pointing to the New Testament saying Jesus and Paul made all foods edible.)
As a keeper placed an in-hand bridle or halter, on handsome stud Joe to lead him to water, every resident in the female pen about 200 feet away, even the yearlings lying in sternal recumbency, came to rapt attention, heads and eyes moving in locked unison. Befitting his star turn, Camel Joe seemed to add a little extra oomph to his strutting pace (not trotting – look it up!); his smokin’ chance on the runway of life. With all the testosterone in the air I did not notice if the keeper actually made Joe drink, thus barring me from coining an unforgettable phrase that some long-ago sage beat me to when it comes to horses.
If you visit NRCC most of the place is off-limits as it really is a research station. But there are a few obligatory rooms of tourist merchandise facing a walkway, all watched over by a few desultory vendors. There is also a little museum and, outside the main gate, next to the admissions window, a place to buy kulfi on a stick, a frozen dairy dessert more dense and creamier than our ice cream. Here, of course, it is made from camel milk. It is divine and the serving size is on the parsimonious side. At $.77 each why not buy two! I tend to avoid dairy products in less hygienic environments (read: the countryside of India) but the NRCC runs a clean food operation. Plus camel milk can be left out without refrigeration for 8 to 9 hours without spoiling.
(The King of Legend, not General Douglas Mac)
It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The kulfi must be perfect, all the whole-long year.
A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August the monsoons they must bring.
And there’s a legal limit to the snow here
In the Camel-lot.
The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order, summer lingers through September
In our Camel-lot.
I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
But in Camel-lot, Camel-lot
That’s how conditions are.
I know it gives a person pause,
But in Camel-lot, Camel-lot
Those are the legal laws.
The snow may never slush upon the hillside.
By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In our Camel-lot.