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TRAVEL: Bactrian camels of China

In search of the last wild camels on earth

More rare even than the Giant Panda, the wild Bactrian camels of China are in danger of extinction. An English conservationist  is intent on saving the herd. But first he must find them

THE black dog hurtled down the side of the hill, scattering sheep and goats in all directions. I spun round and, in the same instant, it sank its teeth deep into my left shin. Up went its head and off came the leg of my corduroy trousers. To a cacophony of pathetic bleating, I stared vacantly as blood dripped on to my boot. Moments later, herdsman Usuman, with shouts of rage, was holding his thick-set guard dog by its ears and shaking it vigorously. I turned away and limped back down the Hongliugou valley towards my tent. Yet another sign, I thought, that we should abandon this ill-starred expedition.

Earlier portends had been unmistakable; a badly twisted ankle three weeks before I was due to leave England for China, and a devastating ‘black’ sandstorm that had blown up without warning and scattered our 20 domestic camels in all directions. If it had not been for the storm, I would not have been idly watching herdsmen packing up their tents, nor been bitten by the dog. We would already have set out on our wild Bactrian camel survey and be well on the way to scaling the barrier of sand dunes which cuts off hitherto unexplored mountain valleys.

I arrived at my tent to find Yuan Guoying, the ebullient professor responsible for organising the expedition, busily sticking needles into the knees of our guide, Lao Zhao. He laid down his acupuncture kit and peered at the dog bite. ‘You are lucky. If it had bitten you from behind, you might not have been able to walk.’

My main concern, as I poured half a bottle of TCP on to the wound, was that it did not fester. That evening Usuman’s wife came to my tent, clutching a paper packet that contained ‘hair of the dog that bit me’. ‘Put this on the wound if the bite goes bad,’ she said. ‘It will cure everything, even dog-sickness.’ She meant rabies. Perhaps there is more to that old adage than a hangover cure.

The Xinjiang Lop Nur Wild Camel Nature Reserve is in the heart of the former Chinese nuclear test area. At 150,000 square kilometres it is larger than Poland, but the Reserve does not fully encompass the wild Bactrian camel’s range, as we were to discover. In valleys just outside the southern boundary of the Reserve we encountered several large herds of wild camels that had travelled south to seek out melting mountain snows and fresh vegetation.

Our adventure began when I arrived in Urumqi and met again the team who had accompanied me on previous expeditions: Yuan Guoying, live-wire Professor of Zoology from the Xinjiang Environmental Protection Institute; Li Weidong, small-mammal researcher from the same organisation; and Zhao Ziyun, poacher-turned-gamekeeper, who had criss-crossed the Gashun Gobi legally and illegally since the 1970s. Four days later we set out in two Chinese jeeps and a supply truck to make the 1,300-mile journey to the Hongliugou valley where we had arranged to hire the domestic camels to take us across the sand dunes to valleys in the Arjin Shan—the Mountains of Gold.

In Hongliugou, the black sand storm held us hostage for eight days, during which the camels ran away. Our herdsmen recaptured 16 of them and Usuman hired an extra four and agreed to join us. An onslaught of large white Hongliugou mosquitoes encouraged an early move. Yuan Lei, the Professor’s son and my interpreter, four Uighur herdsmen and I set out on the route we had followed in 1997 to Many Rat Hole Valley, a prominent seasonal watercourse stretching north from the Tibet escarpment towards the southernmost tip of the dried-up lake of Lop Nur.

Conditions were now perfect. The ominous mist of dust and sand left by the storm had lifted and the light was crystal clear. Crevices and gullies that gouged the sides of the mountains stood out in unbelievably sharp relief. The slanting late-afternoon sun highlighted every precipice, buttress and fissure in the huge battlements, which, in the haze of dust, gradually lost their detail, then vanished in all-conquering indigo. We wound our way up and over a seemingly endless line of sandstone foothills. By mid-afternoon on the second day it was clear that one of our camels was tiring. Another bad omen. Three of the herdsmen dropped behind to encourage her along. While waiting for them to catch up, Yuan Lei and I rested on top of a steep-sided escarpment abutting a valley that led into the mountains. I lay back, hat over my face, and drifted into sleep.

Suddenly I heard Yuan Lei calling urgently: ‘John. Look over there!' Struggling to my feet I stared towards the mountains. Marching in formation towards us was the largest group of wild camels that I have ever seen. It was so large I thought at first that they were stray, unsupervised, domestic camels. Then it dawned on me that this was a virtually unrepeatable sight—the largest herd of wild camels under the control of one bull camel that one was ever likely to see. I struggled with my video camera. Why was I looking at a hazy blur? The herd continued to advance. Then they saw us, and immediately the group turned and scattered. ‘Nineteen females, 17 young and one bull,’ said Usuman laconically. ‘Thirty-seven wild camels.’

Thirty-seven! I had no idea that a bull could control such a large harem. And 17 of the herd were young camels less than two years old. This showed a striking rate of survival in contrast with the number of dead young camels that we had encountered near Lop Nur two years before. I was beside myself with frustration. The picture of a lifetime had been scuppered because I had not realised that the focus switch had flicked from automatic to manual. Yuan Lei chased wildly after the retreating herd, but he did not manage to take a satisfactory picture either. Then we all regrouped, Yuan Lei and I lapsing into uncharacteristically moody silence.

Why do we do it? Why do our team members go to extreme lengths to count wild camels? We do it to ensure that the wild Bactrian camel which is so admirably suited to one of the world’s harshest desert environments, does not disappear from the Earth.The wild Bactrian camel has my deepest respect. Any animal that has adapted to drinking salt water and survived more than 40 atmospheric nuclear tests in the arid wastes of the Gashun Gobi commands respect. But even the announcement of China’s suspension of underground nuclear testing in March 1996 could prove a mixed blessing. Less exposure to radiation for the camel means greater exposure to the outside world.

Even in the newly created Xinjiang Lop Nur Wild Camel Nature Reserve, up to 20 wild Bactrian camels are being shot annually by miners and hunters. Since the cessation of nuclear tests in China, the wild Bactrian camel now faces new threats, including highly toxic, illegal gold mining and hunting for food and sport. Parts of the camel’s habitat are likely to be designated for industrial use.

Three days later into our expedition, the sighting of several solitary bull camels having raised our spirits, we arrived at Wutong spring. This was the freshwater spring we had reached in 1997, when, desperately short of food and water, we had made a dash from the dried-up lake of Lop Nur more than 100 miles to the north. Two years ago Wutong spring had seemed idyllic, a garden of Eden. The wild poplar was in bloom, and the sweet water that flowed from a crack in the rock-face tasted like nectar. This time our camels were equally thirsty, but Wutong wore a dry and dusty face. Tall, brittle fragmitis grass covered the hole in the gully where the camels could drink, and it was impossible to get near it. Our camels needed water so badly that after some debate we decided to set fire to the fragmitis. One match was enough, and the narrow gully was alive with billowing flames. Soon the camels were picking their way through charred, smoking tufts of grass towards the sweet water.

Unknown to us, other inhabitants lived nearby. A pair of wolves had cunningly sited their den near the spring, so that an unlimited supply of fresh meat—wild sheep, wild camels, and Tibetan asses, among other animals—would parade on their doorstep. Smoke had drifted into the den, flushing out three cubs no more than six weeks old.

We did not stay long at Wutong. It was plagued with huge, aggressive ticks which scurried up our legs to seek out warm, moist recesses. The camels, queuing to drink the fresh water, kicked out in frustration as the ticks buried into their legs. Usuman held up a glowing cigarette end. ‘Tick medicine for you and the camels,’ he said with a laugh.

On the fifth day we reached Many Rat Hole Valley, so named by the Chinese because it is surrounded by towering cliffs, pock-marked with small holes caused by wind erosion. After an uphill slog over three miles through ice-cold snowmelt, we met the Professor and our supply vehicles. We were elated, and not because of the timely rendezvous. We had encountered 55 wild Bactrian camels, whereas in 1997 we had not seen a single one. We could only conclude that on the previous expedition, when we set out earlier in the year, the camels had not begun their migration south.

The formidable mosquitoes that inhabit Many Rat Hole Valley deserve to have it rechristened in their name. Even more virulent than their cousins in Hongliugou valley, they come in two varieties, white and black. By the end of four days of waiting while the Professor in the vehicles tried in vain to seek out a route to our next staging post, somewhere between our present position and Lapeiquan, my hands had swollen like a prize-fighter’s and my left eye was almost closed. We had been mosquito fodder too long.

The next morning we left the valley, conscious of the daunting task ahead: to make a crossing of the Kum Tagh sand mountains which extend some 400 miles from the oasis of Dun Huang in the east to the remains of the ancient city of Miran in the west. More than 500ft high, and surfaced with treacherous soft sand, they cut off the Gashun Gobi and Lop Nur lake bed from Marco Polo’s ‘fearful desert of Lop’. For most of their length they leave a 20-mile-wide corridor between their range and that of the Arjin Shan, but immediately east of Many Rat Hole Valley, the dunes breach this corridor and join the Arjin Shan mountains. None of us knew exactly what lay ahead, nor how many days it would take to cross the dunes. Our maps showed that a great expanse of sand stretched in front of us, but the size of the dunes and the precise nature of the constantly shifting sand made this a journey into the unknown. Relying on maps, a GPS, and gut feeling, we headed for what we thought was the least daunting of the dunes.

Soon we were struggling. Our camels lab-oured painfully upwards, and soft sand filled our boots at every step. I discovered that so-called fitness did not encompass taking two strides uphill and one back. Boots were shed. Hot sand burned the soles of our feet as we clambered to the summit of dune after endless dune. The weather held fair, and the rolling dunes shed countless shadows in the late-afternoon light. But my many involuntary pauses were made to recover my strength, not to admire the view. The dunes’ summits—whipped by the wind into fragile, knife-edge pinnacles—were particularly hard.

On the first night, under a full moon and a brilliant mantle of stars, we camped in a hollow in one of the dunes, supremely thankful that a sandstorm had not blown up. We forgot burnt feet and swollen hands when our scientist-turned-amazing-cook, Li Weidong, found the energy to serve up authentic noodles with salt mutton. Happy and replete, firm in the knowledge that we had crossed where no one in recent history had set foot, I fell asleep after watching countless satellites winking around the globe.

Three more days under a baking sun tried both man and camel. At one point a strong wind got up and for two hours we were sprayed with flying sand. Yet even here, in the heart of the sand mountains, occasionally we surprised wandering wild camels. On the evening of the fourth day, from the vantage point of the high dunes, we gave an involuntary cheer as we saw a wide valley spread before us hundreds of feet below. We had done it. We had crossed the dunes. Three hours later we finally shook the sand from our boots and clambered on to the broken, rocky surface of Bin Gou—Ice Valley.

A thin trickle of semi-sweet water percolated down the valley. Our poor camels had suffered during the dune crossing. They were rapidly losing weight and condition, and the seasonal moult of their woolly winter hair caused them to appear even more wretched. They were in dire need of water. Unlike their wild cousins, which can survive on salt water slush, our camels could only cope with marginally salt water. But they needed a sizeable pool, not this trickle, to fill them up. We camped on a sandy spit in the valley entrance, and that evening the herdsmen led the camels up the valley to seek out the water source. After six miles, they found a spring, and the camels drank their fill. They did not return until long after midnight.

As the sun rose, we let the sleeping herdsmen rest and Yuan Lei and I set off to explore an interesting (Continued on p123) (Continued from pxxx) looking gully that twisted back into the sand dunes. It seemed to be a well-used wild camel track, probably leading to a spring. Halfway up the gully we found the footprints of a bear that bore an uncanny resemblance to those of a man. ‘It must be wild man,’ said Yuan Lei, in a pointed reference to the yeti. We climbed on up the gully. When we reached the summit we saw two wild camels walking straight towards us. ‘Quick, hide, Yuan Lei!’

We ducked down behind a tiny bush, not daring to move, hardly daring to breathe. The camels continued to advance. 'I think they're making for the gully,' I whispered.

To our intense delight they walked slowly down the gully, passing within 30ft of us. They were leaner and smaller than their domestic cousins, and we had a bird's-eye view of their tightly formed, upright humps-in stark contrast to the large, sometimes flaccid, humps of the domestic Bactrian. The camels were in moult like our own team, but unlike our camels were in prime condition. The lead camel suddenly stopped (one camera click too many), turned about, and saw us. The two of them instantly raced down the gully.

Moments later, Yuan Lei gripped my arm. 'Look, John!' he whispered hoarsely, his whole body quivering with suppressed excitement as he pointed at another camel coming towards us. We were again directly confronted with a wild camel, which this time stood stock still before it turned and fled. I had never dreamed it was possible to get so close to the shy animal we were struggling to protect. I felt that I could have plucked some hair from its shaggy coat. Rejoicing in our good fortune, Yuan Lei and I returned to the camp, where we prepared ourselves for the next push, towards Lapeiquan.

Entering a huge, dry plain, we saw a Tibetan ass, distinguished by its large brown and white patches; and four surprisingly inquisitive wild sheep. Then the good-natured camel that was carrying my kit saw the bleached skull of a wild camel. He stretched out his long neck and grasped it with his teeth. With head held high, he crunched it up. I guessed he must have needed a calcium supplement. After going for about 12 miles, we pitched camp on a sandy incline that faced directly on to the Arjin Shan mountains.

Here, for the first time since setting out, we established radio contact with the Professor. He told us that he had taken the mountain route to the freshwater spring of Lapeiquan, 60 miles to the east, and was attempting to drive west to meet us. But there was no track, and the ground surface was pitted and covered in rocks and boulders. 'We dare not bring the jeeps and are only using the truck,' he said. After three days he had not advanced more than 20 miles.

The following day, after finding another unmapped spring, where again we could water the camels, we crossed a mountain pass into yet another seemingly endless plain. Here we saw more wild camels, wild sheep and Tibetan asses. We came across vultures, dozens of them, feeding on the remains of a wild young camel.

By careful analysis of the carcass and surrounding footprints, we could see that it had been killed and gutted a few hours earlier by four wolves. One had attacked the throat, and the other three, the hindquarters. I got off some skin samples from the hind legs, which I hoped would be of value for genetic testing. We had submitted similar samples to the Bronx Zoo and other institutions after previous expeditions, and the results indicate that the wild camel has a 3% genetic difference from the domestic Bactrian camel. The wild Bactrian has in the past been labelled a silk road runaway or a domestic stray. But the evidence is mounting that the wild Bactrian is, as I believe, the remnant stock of the original wild herds that roamed Central Asia until 4,000 years ago when man began domesticating the camel.

That evening, a sandstorm threatened but died away. Then a most unwelcome drama struck, when the domestic camel that had laboured so much from the beginning of our journey fell off the edge of a steep-sided pass, crashing to her death. She had carried no load for days and was walking untied and completely free. But she had grown gradually weaker and lost her footing. It was a grim reminder of the harshness of the land we were crossing, and the thin line between success and failure.

After this incident, we saw the Kum Tagh stretching ahead. Our hearts sank. Nobody wanted a repeat crossing of the sand dunes. But both camels and man were in for a surprise. Deep in the dunes, shielded in all directions by mountains of sand, was a beautiful gorge that contained a spring of sweet water. I was with Usuman when he saw it, and the effect it had on the senses was remarkable. Conditioned to scenes of endless rolling sand, one's eyes took some moments to adjust to the extraordinary contrast of water and vegetation lying many feet below.

As I arrived breathless at the bottom of the gorge, Usuman, who had been some way ahead of me, began to gesticulate. Panting with fatigue, and in a state of excitement, I slithered and scrambled as noiselessly as I could. In a grove of golden fragmitis, stood a wild camel. It had gorged on water to a point where it looked as though it was ready to give birth. I had never seen a camel, wild or domestic, fill its belly to such an extent. It must have sensed that many waterless days lay ahead. The camel raised its head from the muddy pool, took one look at me and fled. 'That camel hadn't drunk water for days,' said Usuman when we met up again. 'It was determined to fill up its tank until it overflowed.' In this beautiful setting, which we called Kum Su, the sand spring, confusion set in. Two of our plastic water containers had split and their valuable contents had ebbed away. The water in the gorge was too salty for us, and we had only enough sweet water to last one more day.

That evening we struck out over the sand dunes surrounding the gorge. Their surface was hard, their contours benign. We camped in a cramped hollow that harboured ticks, and I soon discovered that I had set myself up as their evening meal. Yuan Lei, who had succeeded in photographing some wild argali sheep, wisely perched his sleeping bag on top of a dune to avoid them.

The following day, after a long, tiring journey, we descended to yet another valley into which the Professor had managed to drive the truck. His petrol was dangerously low and our water was finished. 'One more day, and we would have been in real difficulty,' said the Professor as we embraced. 'Yet again we have been very, very lucky.'

We had cause for celebration. On our arduous trek we had seen 169 wild Bactrian camels; a number that far exceeded our expectations. On three previous expeditions we had seen no more than 70 in all, most of them had been specks on the horizon. The Professor, however, was reluctant to revise upward out estimate of about 660 camels in China. ‘We have seen too few on earlier expeditions for us to do that,’ he said.

But armed with latest information we achieved our aim. The Xinjiang Arjin Shan Nature Reserve is up and running. In both Beijing and Urumqi there is a real will to make it a success. The will has to be urgently translated into reality. The race to save the critically endangered wild Bactrian camel—more rare than the Giant Panda—is a race against time.

For further information on the wild Bactrian camel write to: John Hare, The Wild Camel Protection Foundation, School Farm, Benenden, Kent TN17 4EU (telephone 01580 241132, fax 01580 240960, e-mail harecamel @ aol.com, or visit our website: www.wildcamels.com). John Hare's book, Shadows Across the Sahara, is published by Constable and Robinson.

 

 

 


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