DUBAI // For centuries, camels have been an essential part of life in the UAE, providing transport, clothing, shelter, meat and milk.
But as other livestock animals have been industrialised, camels have lagged behind, overlooked compared with more global species such as horses and cattle.
Now the race is on to bring the camel up to scratch - and promising results from an artificial insemination programme have brought the UAE one step closer to dramatically increasing the amount of camel milk it can produce.
By fine-tuning the process, scientists at the Camel Reproduction Centre in Dubai have managed to increase the rate of live births of camels from surrogate mothers sixfold. By inseminating closer to the time of ovulation, using more sperm than previously and mixing it with different buffer chemicals, two in three attempts now lead to a live birth.
The aim is to be able to harvest eggs from camels known to be good milkers, fertilise them artificially, and rear the offspring in the wombs of many camels at once.
The lab has also had success with freezing camel semen, which was previously considered very difficult.
The two advances will make it much easier for scientists to selectively breed camels with better milking qualities, and to translate that better stock into a large milking herd.
"You get a really good donor, whichever trait you want, for meat, milk or transport, and you transfer its embryos into other camels," said Dr Lulu Skidmore, the scientific director of the Camel Reproduction Centre, which has developed the technology in Dubai.
"We've got a lot better this year. We're getting 60 to 70 per cent pregnancy rate after a fresh embryo transfer, and we're getting 50 to 60 per cent with fresh semen when we only had about 20 to 30 per cent last year."
The centre has been working with the Emirates Industry for Camel Milk and Products, which owns the Camelicious brand, for three years to increase the camel milk supply.
While cows can produce up to 40 litres of milk a day, camels typically manage less than eight.
But Camelicious is working on artificially inseminating eggs from 500 of its best milking camels to build its genetic stock.
"Our best camel so far gave 15 litres of milk a day for 600 days," said Dr Peter Nagy, Camelicious's farm manager. "That's 9,000 litres in total, which is a lot."
Camels reproduce slowly, having one calf every two and a half years. Females do not breed until they are four or five years old. They cannot become pregnant while milking, which can be up to 16 months.
"Normally, when camels milk, they don't get pregnant, so the more you keep it in milking, the later you will get a calf," Dr Nagy said. "Our aim is to have healthier camels that produce more milk and the embryo transfer technique [helps achieve that] twice as fast as usual."
The first camels produced by the project will start milking four years from now. Their milk, says Dr Nagy, will be used to meet local demand.
"We will use it for cheese, powder, chocolate and some are planned for exports once we have an export permit to the European Union."
Samples of UAE camel milk were approved as safe by European regulators this year in a key step towards starting exports to the continent.
But the milk will not be exported until the food authorities in the Emirates can prove they are working together on disease control.
Once the artificial insemination process has been fine-tuned, Dr Skidmore plans to take it overseas. "I want to translate that work to Africa and places where there's world hunger," she said. "Should they be able to use artificial insemination and embryo transfer, they could revolutionise the world hunger system."
The team has also worked for two years on freezing semen, to help breed camels with specific traits.
"The idea is to freeze it so we can transport it," Dr Skidmore said. "Until you can freeze semen and embryos, you've got no means of storing or transporting it worldwide."
That can be challenging. Because they are adapted to dry conditions, camels' semen is very gelatinous, making it hard to freeze.
"They also don't produce much," Dr Skidmore said. "While horses produce 200 to 300 millilitres, camels only produce 2 to 3 millilitres."
But the team's work is improving, having switched to a different type of cryoprotectant chemical to protect sperm during the freezing process, and removing plasma from the semen can make it easier to mix with buffer chemicals. Now, up to half the sperm survive the freezing and thawing process - a huge increase from before, when the rate could be as low as 10 per cent.
The challenge now is to put the two sides together - to reduce the rate of eggs rejecting frozen sperm.
"We've done in vitro and we've seen [sperm] penetrate the egg but it extracts," Dr Skidmore said. "That's the next step for creating pregnancies."