A New and Separate Species
The wild camel (Camelus ferus), a new and separate species, lives in three separated habitats in China and one in Mongolia. Thanks to the efforts of the WCPF, the wild camel was listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2002 as critically endangered. There are approximately 600 surviving in China and 450 in Mongolia. The majority of these shy animals live in the Gashun Gobi (Lop Nur) desert in China and in the south-western area of the Mongolian Gobi.
The wild camel has a special place in evolutionary history. They are the remnants of herds which crossed from the Arizona desert in North America over the Bering Strait land bridge 3 – 4 million years ago. Camels were domesticated 4,000 years ago, but the wild camels in the Gashun Gobi (Lop Nur) area, were a separate species and we believe avoided domestication. Moreover, research has shown that in the embryonic stage, one-humped, dromedary camels have a small second hump that does not develop. This suggests that the ancestor of all camels on earth is the wild camel.
Located deep within the continental interior of the Asian continent and far from moisture laden winds, the Great Gobi Desert is one of the greatest deserts in the world, and with its variation of desert types it is unique in Asia. While vegetation is sparse, the desert itself varies from rocky mountain massifs, to the flat pavement-like areas of the extremely arid desert; stony, desert plains; poplar fringed oases; vast washed-out plains and high sand dunes. Ancient fossils show that the Great Gobi Desert was once part of a large inland sea basin.
The WCPF is currently working with government and local authorities in China and Mongolia, to try and protect the wild camel in the wild. The first phase of the work in China, was the establishment of the Lop Nur Wild Camel National Nature Reserve. Five entry checkpoints have been constructed, but more checkpoints and additional equipment for the Reserve are required. In addition is the development of a Scientific Programme, coordinating resources and scientists in China and Mongolia. This could have important implications for human survival and research.
Salt Water Tolerance
The wild camel has managed to survive in an area of the Gobi in China, the Gashun Gobi (Lop Nur), which was for 45 years a nuclear test site. The wild camel survived the effects of radiation from 43 atmospheric nuclear tests and is breeding naturally. In the absence of fresh water, it had also adapted to drinking salt water with a higher salt content than sea water. Domestic Bactrian camels cannot drink salt water with this degree of salt.
Research to date does not show conclusively how the wild Bactrian camel is absorbing and secreting the salt water. In China, young camels after suckling for two years, can adapt to drinking salt-water. It is this adaptability which enables them to survive in the Gashun Gobi. Wild camels migrate over huge distances in pursuit of unreliable salt water sources and meagre grazing. They can survive extremes of temperature varying from -40 Celsius to plus 55 Celsius. The WCPF believes that the wild camel can yield up secrets, which will be of great benefit to man.
The species has suffered a drastic reduction in its range. It now occurs only in three separated habitats in northwest China (Lake Lob, Taklimikan desert and the ranges of Arjin Shan) and one in the Trans-Altai Gobi desert of southwest Mongolia.
The camels are migratory, and their habitat ranges from rocky mountain massifs to flat arid desert, stony planes and sand dunes.
Wild camels are diurnal, sleeping at night in open spaces and foraging for food during the day. Shrubs and grass form the bulk of the diet, with the animals being well adapted to feed on thorns, dry vegetation and salty plants, which other herbivores avoid. Excess fat is stored in the humps and used as a reserve when food is scarce.
There are approximately 600 individuals surviving in China and 350 in Mongolia. In contrast, there are over 2 million domestic Bactrian camels currently living in Central Asia.
Population size is decreasing. The Mongolian population has almost halved in the last twenty years and there is every indication that the situation is just as serious for the Chinese populations.