BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 18:08 GMT
'New' camel lives on salty water
Camel AFP
The camels' habitat was used for nuclear testing
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby in Nairobi

Scientists believe they have found a new mammal species, a camel that lives in a remote part of Asia.

[The camels] are blown to pieces and picked up as meat

John Hare, Wild Camel Protection Foundation
The animal survives in this inhospitable area by drinking water from salty springs. Most of the camels live on a former nuclear weapons testing range.

But human incursions have now raised concern for the creature's survival. There are thought to be fewer than 1,000 of the camels, making them more endangered than the giant panda.

The news of the camel's discovery was announced at the meeting here of the United Nations Environment Programme's (Unep) governing council.

Dynamite danger

Unep is providing funds for the animals' home, the Arjin Shan Lop Nur nature reserve, which lies in the Kum Tagh sand dunes on the edge of the Tibetan mountains.

The area is in China's Xinjiang province, and was used by the Chinese for testing nuclear weapons from 1955 until 1996.

Since then people have been entering Lop Nur, and some have taken to planting dynamite and other explosives around the water holes where the camels come to drink.

The camels have lived in the area from time immemorial, but it is only recently that their unique identity was suspected.

Genetic tests on camel samples collected by a Sino-British team in 1999 have found significant variations between the animals and their domesticated cousins.

Distinctive kneecaps

The only visual difference is that the Chinese animals have their humps further apart than other Bactrians, and are said also to have hairier kneecaps.

The joint expedition leader is John Hare, founder of the UK-based Wild Camel Protection Foundation. He said: "The scientists doing the genetic tests have found a 3% difference in the base pairs between the domesticated and these wild Bactrian camels.

When people think about charismatic wildlife, they too often tend to think about animals like the tiger or the cheetah

Robert Hepworth, Unep
"You have to remember that there is only a 5% difference between man and chimpanzees. So these wild camels may be a different species never domesticated by humans.

"The remoteness of the area has helped preserve them. But with the cessation of nuclear tests, illegal hunters and miners looking for gold and iron ore are moving in. We found land mines put by the salt water springs.

"So when the camels come to drink they step on them, bang! They are blown to pieces and picked up as meat."

The team conducting the genetic tests hope to publish their results soon.

One of the team leaders is Professor Olivier Hanotte, a molecular geneticist from the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi.

Breeding programme

He said: "There are two possibilities here. One is that the domestic camel was bred from these wild ones some time back in history.

"The second is that the domestic camel we see today was bred from another species that has disappeared. This would mean that these wild camels are a totally separate species."

The number of animals at Lop Nur is estimated, from surveys and interviews with local herdsmen, at about 600.

There are thought to be a further 300 identical camels in the Gobi desert in Mongolia, and 15 animals in captivity.

John Hare said: "If the camels become extinct, then we do not have the numbers or the genetic diversity among those in captivity to guarantee a successful captive breeding programme. That makes them more endangered than the giant panda."

There are hopes nevertheless that the wild camels could breed with domesticated ones, to pass on their ability to withstand harsh environments and the physiological stress of drinking salt water.

BBC Map showing location of camel reserve
The camels live in China's Xinjiang Province
The World Conservation Union's Red List classifies the wild Bactrian camel as highly endangered, but some experts think it should be listed as critically endangered, the highest threat category for a species.

Robert Hepworth, a Unep biodiversity expert, said: "It seems pretty certain that this is a new species, and the differences appear sufficient to identify it as one.

"When people think about charismatic wildlife, they too often tend to think about animals like the tiger or the cheetah. But these camels may well be as special in the natural world as these other better-known rare and endangered species."

Mr Hepworth told BBC News Online: "The salt water is not ideal for the camels, and they have had to adapt to drinking it. Some young animals can't adapt, and they die as a result, which means a further stress on this already endangered group of animals. There is no fresh water available within the reserve itself."

Unep and the Global Environment Facility have spent $750,000 on establishing the Lop Nur reserve, which is one and a quarter times the size of Poland.

Unep also spent $1,650,000 in 1979 helping Mongolia to set up the Great Gobi Reserve, which protects the camels there from wolves and other threats.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

12 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Gobi camel reserve plan
23 Apr 00 | Americas
New monkey species discovered
01 Jul 99 | Sci/Tech
Leaf deer takes a bow
01 Jul 99 | Africa
Extinct lion set for comeback
Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories