The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 13
THE CRITICALLY ENDANGERED WILD BACTRIAN CAMEL by John Hare
A former nuclear test area seems an unlikely safe haven for a critically endangered species, even more so when it is surrounded by a vast, inhospitable section of China's Gobi desert.
I was very fortunate to be the first foreigner to obtain permission since 1952 to enter the arid, lunar landscape of the Gashun Gobi, in the north-western corner of China. The area can fairly be described as one of the most unwelcoming and dangerous areas in the world, an amalgam of Arctic cold and baking heat where vicious, swirling sandstorms have been known to strip a vehicle of its paintwork.
Permission was unexpectedly given and four expeditions were made in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1999. These were concerned with tracking down the mysterious, wild Bactrian camel. There are under a thousand left in the world, which makes it more endangered than the giant Panda. On the 1995 expedition I was fortunate to take unique photographs of a wild Bactrian camel with a seven-hour-old calf. We also had many other adventures including warding off an attack by bandits near the Arjin Shan mountains that border Tibet.
In 1996 our second expedition into China took us into one of the most desolate regions on earth, to the wandering lake, Lop Nur, where an escape from treacherous rock salt was achieved by using cooking oil for the truck engine lubricant. The expedition faced temperature extremes of -10 to +25 centigrade and was blasted by ferocious sandstorms. We were confronted with thousands of thirty-metre-high eroded land forms called “yardangs”. We were also confronted with virtually impassable three-foot-high rock salt, which surrounds Lop Nur. The route criss-crossed the tracks of the famous late nineteenth-century Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin and the route of the Middle Silk Road, abandoned in AD400.
In 1997 our hardened team undertook an expedition to the south of Lop Nur to survey this wild camel migration route using domestic camels to carry supplies. A sandstorm caused the camels to run off and the expedition was abandoned on the edge of Lop Nur for six days. However, the migration route was successfully surveyed and in March 1999 the Chinese State Environment Protection Agency and the Xinjiang Provincial Authority officially sanctioned the establishment of the Lop Nur Nature Sanctuary which turned over half of the former nuclear test site into a nature sanctuary bigger than Poland. Truly a case of turning swords into ploughshares.
In 1999 on another expedition sponsored by National Geographic, we crossed previously untraversed sand dunes and discovered 169 wild camels and other rare wild animals living in two unmapped valleys.
Lastly, in 2001 we set off on an expedition to cross the Sahara from Lake Chad to Tripoli funded by National Geographic to raise awareness for the wild Bactrian camel. This 1462 mile journey took three and a half months and was the first time that the route had been traversed in its entirety since 1906.
As for the camels, DNA tests point to major genetic differences between both Dromedary and Bactrian camels and their two-humped wild Bactrian cousins. They now only survive in the wild in the Gashun Gobi and in an isolated corner of Mongolia. Since the cessation of atmospheric nuclear testing, they are under new and very real threats from man. The wild Bactrian camels are now shot for food by speculators illegally hunting for gold and other minerals, whose mining operations can involve the use of potassium cyanide, which poisons the vegetation. At one salt water spring we found home-made land mines which had been constructed from gelignite to blow up wild camels when they ventured out of the desert to seek out salt water slush. The meat would have been picked up for food. Subjected to all this unwarranted activity, they appear, paradoxically, to have been safer during the period of nuclear activity.
However, the appeal of the wild Bactrian camel to conservationists goes beyond genetics and curiosity value. We have a mammal which survives under conditions where man cannot, which is why the Chinese opted for the desolate area as an atmospheric nuclear test site. The Gashun Gobi has no fresh water, only the saline variety which bubbles up to the surface from underground springs and on which the Bactrian survives. No other living thing, not even the domestic camel, can drink it. How has this amazing animal survived on salt water? This is a fertile field for urgent scientific study.