The domestication of these camels began over 4500 years ago. Today, there are more than two million of the domestic variety, but the wild population is endangered.
Archaeological evidence has revealed that Bactrian, or two-humped, camels were first domesticated around 2500 BC. It used to be believed that the one-humped, or dromedary, camel evolved from domesticated Bactrian camels. However, 3,000-year-old rock drawings in the Arabian peninsula show horsemen hunting dromedaries, and 7,000-year-old dromedary remains suggest that one-humped camels had wild-living ancestors.
Bactrian camels and dromedaries can interbreed, and their young have either a long single hump with a slight indentation, or a large hump and a small hump. Camel humps contain fat deposits that provide the animal with energy when there is no available food.
Over the last hundred years there has been a great reduction in wild Bactrian camel numbers. Although there are around a million domesticated animals, only 1,000 or so wild ones remain, and these are affected by hunting and herders who prevent them from reaching water holes. Camels have many adaptations to cold and heat, and can survive for long periods without water. They have very few sweat glands, so lose little liquid through their skins.
Wild Bactrian camels are quite different in appearance from domestic ones, and have much lighter coats, shorter fur, leaner bodies and smaller humps.
Living in very harsh environments, and exposed to extremes of temperature throughout the year, it is perhaps not surprising that the Bactrian camel’s dense winter coat may fall off in huge chunks as the weather changes. Camels are often described as ‘ships of the desert’, partly because of their rolling gait. This results from their unusual way of walking, with both legs on one side of the body moving forward together, followed by the legs on the other side.
Distribution: Wild populations now only found in Mongolia and northwestern China, but domestic animals found in many parts of central Asia and beyond.
Habitat: Dry steppes and semi-deserts.
Food: Herbivorous, grazing on grass and browsing on taller plants, unpalatable plants and carrion.
Weight: 500 – 1050 kg (1100 – 2300 lb).
Length: 350 cm (138 in), including tail; stands up to 230 cm (90 in) tall.
Maturity: Reach maturity after more than 3 years.
Breeding: Single calf produced every 2 years. Occasionally twins are born.
Gestation Period: About 365 – 430 days; weaning occurs at 1 – 2 years.
Life span: Probably around 20 years in the wild.
A long beard runs down the underside of the throat, with hairs here being 25 cm (1O in) long.
To rise from the ground, Bactrian camels raise their hindquarters and then push themselves up with their forelegs.
The humps are a fat store, indicating the camel’s condition. A well-fed camel has upright humps, which do not slope to the side.
Both toes on each foot spread out as the camel walks, preventing it from sinking into sand.
Camels are not only valued for carrying goods in packs slung over their bodies, but they can also provide milk.