Camel Culture: Mongolia's Trusted Ally
Camel Facts: Hitting the Ground Running
When the vast emptiness of the Gobi blocked Genghis Khan's path to China in the 12th century, the great warlord turned to a trusted ally—the Bactrian camel. Genghis has long since passed into legend, but this distinctive, two-humped beast remains an integral part of Mongolian life.
The Bactrians' one-humped relatives, known as Arabian camels
or dromedaries, are equally valuable in the searing desert regions
of North Africa and Asia.
Camels were domesticated some 3,500 years ago. Today only a
very few wild camels survivemost of them Bactrians living in
remote reaches of the Gobi.
In agricultural societies such as Mongolia, domesticated camels
provide many of life's basic necessities. Camel hair is woven
into clothing and blankets, dried camel droppings fuel fires,
Mongolians consume camel milk and meat with relish, and people
design shoes and saddles from camel hides.
Some desert people measure wealth by the number of camels a
person owns. Such livestock might be considered medium-term investments,
as the captive camel's life span is about 50 years.
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Camels are powerful animals, able to easily carry humans and
their wares. They stand about 7 feet (2.1 meters) tall at the
hump and weigh 1600 to 1800 pounds (726 to 816 kilograms). Over
a four-day period a camel can haul 375 to 600 pounds (170 to 270
kilograms) at rates of 29 miles (47 kilometers) a day and 2.5
miles (4 kilometers) an hour. They have been clocked at over 40
miles (65 kilometers) an hour.
Well adapted to harsh climates, camels are famous for their
ability to travel as many as 100 miles (161 kilometers) without
water. They retain their body moisture efficiently, but they do
not function without water. In fact, a thirsty camel can drink
as many as 30 gallons (135 liters) of water in about 13 minutes.
Contrary to many an old tale, camels don't store all that water
in their humps. The humps actually conserve up to 80 pounds (36
kilograms) of fat—allowing their hosts to survive when
food is scarce. The humps shrink as fat is consumed for energy.
When food is available, camels don't discriminate. Their diet
generally consists of whatever plants are growing nearby but might
be supplemented by an unguarded pair of sandals. Like cows, camels
regurgitate and rechew partially digested cud.
The demanding conditions in which camels live require them to
hit the ground running—in a nearly literal sense. Newborns
walk within a few hours of birth.
At about one year of age a captive camel begins to learn its owner's
commands—the beginning of a relationship the likes of which have
flowered for centuries in some of the harshest conditions on Earth.
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Photo Gallery: The Camels
All images courtesy National Geographic Television & Film.