Page last updated at 10:44 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Caring for Dubai's race camels

By Anna-Marie Lever
Science reporter, BBC News


Three metres inside a racing camel's stomach.

Dr Akbar's patient refuses to enter the surgery room. She kicks and growls. But Dr Akbar is used to dealing with stubborn customers as he treats Dubai's racing and breeding camels.

Today's patient is not eating, and suffering from gastric problems. She is a valuable race camel (Camelus dromedarius) and her owner is concerned.

"He was offered 3 million dirhams (550,000) for her, but he did not want to sell. She is a speedy racer", says Dr Akbar, director of the Dubai Camel Hospital, UAE.

He continues: "I am going to perform an endoscopy to see if she has ulcerations in her stomach."

Each has their own personality. We live with them, race them, ride them and even drink their milk
Ali Khalifa Al-Rumaithi
Camel breeder

The Dubai Camel Hospital opened in 1990 and is owned by HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai, who has a strong interest in camel racing.

The hospital cares for 3,000 camels belonging to the Maktoum family and their friends and relatives.

It is equipped with x-ray and ultrasound equipment, and operating tables. The most common race track injuries are bone fractures.

"Young camels tend to suffer from sore shins and damaged knee joints; older camels are admitted for lameness and arthritis," says Dr Akbar.

Respiratory complaints caused by infection are also common, as are gastric problems, because trainers push carbohydrate down their camels in an attempt to give them more energy to race, leading to acidosis.

On your marks

Dr Akbar is also on the rota of vets who attend camel race meetings to carry out drug testing.

"Although the use of performance enhancing drugs in camels is rare, testing is the only means to keep it this way," he says.

Camel Face
Speed: 40km/hour
Weight: 450kg
Pregnancy: 12 months
Life expectancy: 30-50 years

Dubai's camel race track is approximately 50km (30 miles) out of the city, surrounded by rolling dunes.

Camel racing has always been a Bedouin pastime, but over the last 30 years or so it has become a hugely popular event.

A new television station, Dubai Racing Channel, dedicated to camel, horse and auto racing, has recently started broadcasting.

"Camel racing is not only a sport; it is something that we have grown up," says Abdul-Rahman Amin, the channel commentator.

"Before, we used it to celebrate at weddings or if we had good news. Now camel racing is similar to horse racing. There are strict rules and regulations".

Races are categorised into age, sex and distance. Females run faster than males, and at the optimum age of five years, they can run 8km (5 miles) the longest track distance, in 12 and a half minutes - a speed of 40 km/h (25 mph).

Race camels retire at 11 years old and then good performing females are used for breeding. Careful planning goes into choosing a mate to produce the best possible racer.

Robotic riders

Unlike horse racing, there is no betting and also no rider.

To keep the camels sprinting, an electronic robot is attached to their hump wielding a rotating stick, and owners drive alongside in 4x4s hitting their horns and shouting, leaving the stands empty.

Robotic camel jockey
Alternative rider - high tech jockeys keep camels sprinting

The first 10 fastest camels in a race win a prize ranging from cash to cars or ornamental daggers funded by the royal family.

On big race days, like UAE National Day, prize money can reach 10,000 dirhams (1,800).

However, it is more then just their monetary value that means owners and trainers take extra care of their camels.

"People in Europe have their cats and dogs, we have our camels,' explains camel breeder Ali Khalifa Al-Rumaithi.

"Each has their own personality.

"We live with them, race them, ride them and even drink their milk. It is in our culture."

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