Wild Camel Research
In 2019 WCPF started a scientific programme to study the critically endangered wild camel, to try and discover more about this amazing creature and what threatens its survival in the Gobi Desert
The aim of this research is to reduce the probability of extinction of Mongolia’s critically endangered wild camel (Camelus ferus, хавтгай) through studies of landscape use and conservation genetics to inform conservation reintroduction activities.
The study will be conducted by PhD student Anna Jemmett and co-supervised by research staff at the Zoological Society of London and at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology in School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent. The research is fully funded and supported by the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. Work will be conducted with WCPF Mongolia and the GGSPA ‘A’ Park Administration with permission from the Mongolian Ministry of Nature and the Environment.
Why do we need to start a scientific project?
There is little known about the wild camel and this is largely due to the extremer remoteness of its few remaining habitats. These last strongholds are in north-west China and Mongolia and are the only two countries where the wild camel is found in the world. They are also the only countries in the world where wild camels are held in captivity. In China, the wild camel is found in the Gashun Gobi, and Lop Nur. In Mongolia they are restricted to the Great Gobi Special Protected Area ‘A’.
In 2003 the 155 square kilometre Lop Nur Wild Camel National Nature Reserve was established to conserve the camel in one of its Chinese strongholds. This reserve was set up in partnership between WCPF and the State Environment Protection Agency of China. Previous scientific work on the wild camel in China has been led by Professor Yuan Guoying, Dr Yuan Lei and Dr Han Jian Lin. They have looked into many aspects of camel ecology in China, such as distribution, population and food sources. Their dedicated work for the wild camel in China continues.
The 2019 study will be conducted in the last remaining refuge for wild camels in Mongolia: The Great Gobi Special Protected Area ‘A’ (GGSPA ‘A’). This GGSPA ‘A’ covers over 44,000 square kilometres of desert, open plains, oasis and mountain habitats. This national park was founded in 1979 by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Mongolian Government with the aim of protecting the many endangered species found within the reserve. The Gobi is a place of extremes, with summer temperatures reaching 50 degrees centigrade and winter lows recorded at below 40. This fluctuation of temperatures doesn’t just happen seasonally but daily. Extreme winds of up to 90 miles per hour scour the desert. This national park, itself over twice the size of Wales, makes it very difficult to find and then monitor camels!
Under the IUCN red list the wild camel is currently classed as critically endangered. This classification is given to species that have an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. It is of great importance that we are able to estimate the number of wild camels left, where they occur and how they use the national park. Deriving this simple, yet crucial information is enormously difficult, and has been impossible to achieve so far because of the scarcity of the camels and the vastness of their habitat. To get this vital information we are conducting a new and exciting camera-trapping project. Camera trapping to gather detailed information on population size and space use has never before been conducted at such a vast scale.
Camera traps are usually used to estimate populations of animals that can be recognised individually. These are animals with distinct markings that can be recognised in a photograph. This isn’t possible with wild camels so we have had to think about using cameras in a different way. It will require a lot of cameras; a lot of clever maths and models; many millions of images and some machine learning but by using the cameras placed randomly in a grid across the Gobi we will be able to estimate how many camels live in the park and how they use it.
Working with the rangers in the GGSPA ‘A’ we will be travelling huge distances and exploring areas often unvisited to place the cameras. This in itself will help us with the second part of the study, which is to collect genetic information on the wild camel.
Until fairly recently little was known about the genetics of the wild camel. For example, despite recent genetic research, most people still don’t realise that the wild camel and the domestic Bactrian are a completely different species. Led by Dr Pamela Burger, in 2008 scientists at the Institute of Population Genetics, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna showed the wild camel to be a new and separate species. The wild camel is unique. Genetically, it is a separate species to the domestic Bactrian, both shared a common ancestor nearly 0.7 million years ago. This makes it the very last species of wild camel left on the planet.
By travelling throughout the national park, it will allow us to sample as wide an area as possible and to collect from as many individual camels as possible. We will use wild camel hair and faeces as both of these can be collected non-invasively. Hair is shed and caught in vegetation and faeces can be found readily wherever a camel has been before! DNA collected from these samples can give us the information required to answer some important questions on the wild camel. By examining the genetics of these camels, we hope to be able to quantify the remaining genetic diversity of the wild camel population and also determine the extent to which hybridisation with domestic Bactrian camels has occurred. These genetic samples will also provide another way of estimating the population size and how individuals are using the park. Combined, this information will assist in understanding the threats faced by this charismatic camel and to make decisions about how to best conserve them.
Wild camels forever
As well as gaining a population estimate and working on learning more about the genetic integrity of the camel we will also be looking into a number of other potential threats to the species. These include wolf predation, climate change, habitat degradation, water quality and human disturbance. All of this is possible to monitor using our camera trap, genetic data and other information sources we collect with our partners throughout our research.
Our research is embedded within camel management and we work closely with WCPF Mongolia and the GGSPA ‘A’ Park Administration to ensure this. Our findings will be integrated within an evidence-based management plan that will provide the best possible management solutions to prevent the extinction of this amazing and charismatic emblem of the Gobi Desert.
For more information on the project, or to gain access to previous scientific literature please contact Anna at email@example.com.