A group of researchers at UAE University is turning to genetic fingerprinting in efforts to make the local mahliyat camels faster.
DNA key to building a faster camel
AL AIN // When you're buying a racing camel for millions of dirhams, you want to be pretty sure it can run. More than that, you want to be confident it can run faster than the other million-dirham camels.
A group of researchers at UAE University is turning to genetic fingerprinting in efforts to make the local mahliyat camels faster. They are trying to work out which of a camel's genes affect their racing performance.
Horses' pedigrees can be traced back, often several dozen generations, and a huge amount of time and money has been invested into the science of what makes a good racer.
But the same cannot be said for camel racing. A lack of consistency and the seeming inability of camels to improve their performance has meant frustration for owners eager to see their prized animals cross the line first.
They are slower than horses, with an average of a little more than 10 metres a second compared with horses' 13 metres a second, and there is great demand to bring this speed up.
"If we find those certain genes in certain animals, it's easy to select the animals and improve the performance of the next generation," said Dr Salih Al Shorepy, who is leading the research.
"You need to screen the whole genome of the animals and work out which ones are related to speed."
But racing does not come naturally to camels.
"The race trait has not yet been developed in camels like it has in horses, which race more instinctively," Dr Al Shorepy said.
"Camels sometimes go backwards, or don't run."
And there are almost no pedigree records for camels, making it still harder to analyse their performance.
That kind of detail would be extremely useful to such a rich business, in which some animals sell for up to Dh15million.
There are strict rules about racing. In 1996, officials banned Sudanese camels after it was decided their superior speed made for unfair competition.
Only pure local breeds are allowed to run.
"There has been a lot of interest in training and nutrition of racing camels, but this is the first comprehensive study just to look for all aspects of the racing camels to develop a strategy to improve them genetically," said Dr Al Shorepy.
"Nutrition is maybe useful for one season or a short time, but the genetic improvements would be permanent."
It is also easy for breeders to tell how good their horse is likely to be just by looking at it, with much known about exactly what physical characteristics lead to a good racer.
Again, for camels this depth of precise knowledge is lacking, so the researchers will be looking for correlations between racing performance and attributes such as stride and neck length.
"The girth of the chest area is a very important component for race endurance," said Salama Al Mansouri, 23, one of two students on the research team. "We are going to try to figure out the ratio correlated to the speed and performance, and see what the most desirable measurements of the camel are."
Ms Al Mansouri has grown up around camels. Many members of her family are proud camel farmers who own racers.
"The family have been very supportive of the research," she said. "It means something to all of us."
Once the method is perfected, an owner will be able to tell from as young as a year which camels will be best for racing.
So far, the team has been studying the measurements of a small number of the fastest camels and stills from video footage of 627 races, focusing on the fastest 10.
Using AutoCAD, a 3D photographic software tool used by architects, they have been able to get greater measuring precision.
"It's so hard to measure a camel accurately any other way," said Ms Al Mansouri.
They will also look at the relationship between motion and racing performance to make a simulation that brings together the DNA fingerprint and all the other measurements, much like the system used in horse breeding.
"We will make a selection index, which will help us select the right animals before entering the race," said Zainab Al Kathiri, 23, the other student on the team.
Ms Al Mansouri said the research was not simply a science project.
"It's part of our heritage and culture. The research is going to take some time," she said.
"Making the DNA fingerprints will take at least another two or three years, then applying it even longer, seeing if it's working or not, and even following a camel as it grows."
The undergraduates, both of whom hope to go on to master's degrees in biotechnology, said they were committed to taking the project as far as they can.
"It's something for the UAE," said Ms Al Mansouri. "Camel racing is an old sport."
All a matter of breeding...
While formal records are few and far between, every Bedouin can recite the genealogy of their camels for several generations. It is a camel’s family tree that gives it much of its value.
Camels go by the names of their forefathers and exceptional racers become a pedigree of their own.
The camel Jabar was so famous for his progeny that he is known around racetracks as “Jabar the laboratory”.
A camel’s speed is considered a divine gift that cannot be refused to others and no studding fee is charged.
If the male camel has the energy and is in good health, its owner is obliged to share its breeding with anyone who comes forward.
Females are allowed to mate with one male each season, to eliminate doubt over parentage of her calf.
Artificial insemination has been allowed for almost two decades, but natural mating is easier and remains the norm.
The Bedouin travel thousands of kilometres in the autumn breeding season to breed their females with famous champions.
They will often camp for months to give their camel the best chance of being fertilised by a racing legend.
* Anna Zacharias