BEIJING // A breeding technique pioneered in the UAE to improve the speed of racing camels could help save the shaggy two-humped wild Bactrian camel, one of the world's most endangered species.
The wild camel was recognised as a separate species from the domesticated Bactrian camel only in 2008, and there are thought to be only a thousand of the wild Bactrian camel - scientific name Camelus ferus - left in the world, making it rarer than both the giant panda and the Royal Bengal tiger.
The camels live in the deserts of Mongolia and north-west China, where the cold of the Gobi and the aridness of the Talamakan have discouraged human habitation and thus have protected the timid creatures for generations.
But China's recent economic boom has fuelled demand for the valuable minerals beneath the desert sands, and camel experts say increased human activity in these fragile ecosystems in the past quarter century has caused the camel population to drop by half.
Ironically, the largest population of wild camels, the 600 who live in the Lop Nur desert, probably gained a few extra decades of peace thanks to the Chinese army, which used the area to test 42 nuclear bombs between 1964 and 1995.
John Hare, a British explorer who founded the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, a charity to help save the animal, said: "As far as we know the tests have had no adverse effects on the camels at all, but that fact that it was a restricted zone was hugely beneficial."
The foundation prefers to call the animal simply the Wild CAmel, to emphasise its separateness from the domesticated Bactrian camel. With the population of wild camels plummeting, the foundation set up a breeding a programme in 2003 in the "Great Gobi A" nature reserve in Mongolia to make sure the rare beast, which has humps smaller and farther apart than domesticated Bactrian camels, and is as genetically different from the domesticated variety as humans are from chimpanzees, survives in captivity, even if it cannot survive the encroachment of human beings on its native habitat.
In the future, if conditions improve, camels from the programme could also be used to repopulate areas where the species has died out.
But growing a captive population to the size where it would be genetically diverse enough to survive an outbreak of disease, let alone act as a proto-herd for future re-population projects, relies on an animal's ability to reproduce quickly. And that is something the camel, because it rears its young in climates where resources are scarce, does not do.
Enter the Camel Reproduction Centre in Dubai.
Set up in 1989 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to breed a faster camel, the centre has perfected an embryo transfer technique which allows prize-winning female dromedaries to have multiple offspring every year, as opposed to one calf every two to three years.
The technique works by injecting the female camels with hormones so they release more than one egg when they ovulate. Normally, camels only release one, which means twin camels are rare.
Those eggs, once fertilised, are then washed out of the female using saline solution and planted in surrogate camels, which allows the biological mother to return to racing rather than sit out a season while she goes through a 13-month pregnancy.
In the case of wild camels, domestic two-humped Bactrian camels, which are native to Mongolia and are not endangered, could be used as surrogates, allowing the female wild camel to produce another batch of eggs when she goes in to heat the following year - something she would not do if she was pregnant or suckling her calf.
In Dubai, more than 100 camels have already been bred this way, some of which have gone on to win prestigious races such as the Gold Sword races.
Lulu Skidmore, the director of the Camel Reproduction Centre, said: "Twenty years ago almost nothing was known about the camel's reproductive system. We would be very pleased and proud if the technology we helped to develop in camels here in the UAE helped save an endangered species elsewhere in the world."
Using the technique, Dr Skidmore estimated the current captive population of 20 wild camels could be increased five-fold in matter of years.
But while the science exists, there a number of problems to overcome before any project employing the technique can begin.
Foremost is funding, which the Wild Camel Protection Foundation is now trying to raise. The embryo transfer costs as much as Dh10,000 (US$2,725) per camel. There is also the cost of outfitting the breeding centre with enclosures, scanning machines and microscopes. The veterinary staff would also have to travel to the UAE to receive training.
There would also be other issues, said Dr Skidmore, such as handling the wild camels, which unlike the camels she deals with, have never been domesticated.
Whatever the obstacles, she insisted it would be worth the trouble to save one of the only mammals that can live on salt water.
"The camel is a unique animal adapted especially for desert environments. With global warming, this could be the Age of the Camel."