Willemijn Koch has been working with camels for 17 years. She is currently the Deputy keeper of the giraffe and camel section at the Cotswold Wildlife Park in Oxford, UK. From the first moment she started working with camels, she became fascinated with them and one of her life goals is to go out to Mongolia to volunteer with the Wild Camel Protection Foundation.
Most people start off on the wrong foot when talking about camels. Many assume there are only two species of camel but there are actually three.
The single-humped Dromedary camel (Camelus dromadarius) is mainly found in the middle east and North Africa where they were used as pack animals for the Bedouins who were crossing the silk routes and still do today. The double-humped Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) is known as the most domesticated of all three species. Historically they were used as a pack animal in Asia, but nowadays they are found all over the world. Then there is the critically endangered wild camel (Camelus ferus) which is mainly found in the Gobi and Mongolian deserts where there are around 1,000 individuals left today. Even though the wild camel looks similar to the Bactrian camel, their DNA is 3 % different and that’s why, since 2008, they are classed as a separate species.
When we talk about animal welfare, we are referring to the four physical aspects of an animal’s life (environment, diet, health and behaviour) which all lead into the mental well-being of the individual. In conservation projects where the wild camel is found, the animals are monitored to ensure that they are safe in their environment without threat from humans. At specialist facilities there is a vet on site if health treatment is needed and the animals are given supplemented feeding if food is scarce. These wild camels have evolved to live in the extreme conditions of the Asian deserts and have choice and control over their lives, with a little help from the conservationists and local people protecting them in the wild.
In facilities such as zoos, camels rely on the staff looking after them to provide an environment which meets their behavioural and physical needs. Although the domesticated camel species have adapted to captive conditions, they still require specific care to achieve good welfare. Bactrian camels still grow think winter coats therefore don’t need heating as long as they have a shelter which is big enough so that every animal in the group can be protected from the elements. They also benefit from scratching posts which are particularly well used in summer when they are shedding those thick fur coats. Sand in their enclosures and houses are not only good for their feet but their overall comfort and happiness too. Camels enjoy sleeping on soft substrate and love nothing more than rolling in sand!
When it comes to feeding camels in captivity, it is important to make sure that they receive a balanced and nutritious diet and are not over-fed. Camels should always have access to hay or grass, as they are grazing animals, but on top of that, a pellet food can ensure all necessary vitamins and minerals are present in the diet. However, camels are very good at utilising their fat stores (located in their humps) when a food resource might be low.
Knowing what minerals are naturally available in the grasses and branches in the camel’s diet is important. If an element is lacking, salt or mineral licks can be used. A lot of facilities might use big blocks but because camel tongues aren’t as rough as other hoof stock, camels may start using their teeth instead. This can lead to grinding down of their teeth and dental problems, but this can be prevented by offering loose minerals or salts instead of a block.
When it comes to camel health, prevention is better than cure. Identifying diseases or health issues which are common in camels and regularly screening for them can ensure optimal health in a herd of camels under human care. For example, conducting faecal analysis frequently can uncover potential issues such as the presence of worm eggs. Overall health checks, for example body and skin condition and foot care, can be made easier by training an individual (using positive reinforcement training techniques) to voluntarily take part in their own health care. I think that it is very important to have a good relationship with your camel and to understand what they are telling you. This is also important for human safety.
I was once told “camels are like marmite, you either like them or you don’t” and I must say that I love them! I think they are one of the most interesting and majestic creatures on this planet.
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