The wild camel had adapted and managed to survive in north-west China’s Xinjiang Province in the Gashun Gobi Desert and the Desert of Lop. For 45 years these two deserts were the Chinese nuclear test site. In spite of this, the wild camel not only survived the effects of radiation but also bred naturally. In some areas in the absence of fresh water, it adapted to drinking salt water, which had a higher saline content than sea water. Domestic Bactrian camels cannot tolerate such a high level of salt. Research to date does not show conclusively how the wild camel is absorbing the salt water and secreting the salt.
The gene pool of the wild camels, because of their isolation and lack of interbreeding with domestic Bactrian camels, has much greater diversity and a wider range of adaptability and capacity for random mutations. This gene pool contains rich source materials for a number of scientific studies.
Samples of skin taken from the remains of dead wild camels in China and Mongolia have been sent to scientists at the Institute of Population Genetics, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna for genetic DNA testing. The results have been remarkable. Each skin sample has shown two or three distinct genetic differences to the domestic Bactrian camel and a 3% base difference. It is these remnant herds in both China and Mongolia that the Wild Camel Protection Foundation is striving to save. In China, by establishing, with Chinese government support, the 65,000 square kilometre, Lop Nur Wild Camel National Nature Reserve and in Mongolia with the establishment of a captive wild camel breeding programme.
A New Species
In 2008 the wild camel was designated a NEW and SEPARATE species by scientists at the Institute of Population Genetics, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. The scientists have published a paper (Genetic status of wild camels ‘Camelus ferus’ in Mongolia) which concludes:
‘Based on genetic and historical evidences the Mongolian wild camel (Camelus ferus) is a distinct species with an independent evolutionary history and clearly separated from its domestic relative, the Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus). However, Hybridization between wild and domestic Bactrian camels occurs and threatens the unique gene pool of the wild camel population. Future genetic and ecological studies should also include the highly endangered wild camels in China. Conserving the genetic integrity and uniqueness of the last wild camels must rank among the highest priorities for developing conservation strategies in both Mongolia and China.’
For years critics have alleged the wild camel was only a Silk Road runaway – a feral camel. Now what WCPF has been saying since 1993 has proved to be correct. Their discovery is based on genetic tests carried out on hair and skin samples that WCPF has sent from both the Mongolian and Chinese deserts where the wild camel has its habitat. The separation is thought to have taken place over 700,000 years ago.