Alxa, or Alashan in Chinese, is famous as the "land of camels". Tucked into the far western corner of Inner Mongolia, this second largest desert of China is home to the double-humped Alashan camel, one of four recognized camel breeds in the country. Between 1982 and 2002, the numbers of the Alashan camel dropped from 250,000 to 60,000 and it is now recognized as a breed under threat according to China's country report on the state of the world's animal genetic resources.
The reasons for the decline are manifold. First, the Alashan camel, much like its one-humped relative in India, has practically lost its function as beast of burden. Secondly, many herders switched to keeping Cashmere goats for whose hair there is a frenzied global demand and which are therefore much more profitable. Thirdly, the grazing ban and the policy of land privatization and fencing that are implemented by the Chinese government in Inner Mongolia interfere with the needs of camels to range over large stretches of land to fill their stomach. Apart from that, much of the pasture land is in a depleted state and the famous Saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron) forests that Alxa is known for and which form an important part of the camel diet have diminished by more than fifty per cent, with the remaining patches being declared as off-limits to grazing.
(Photo: Ao Yan Gao Wa)
Fortunately, the local camel breeders really love their camels and have joined forces to form the Alxa Camel Conservation Association (ACCA). They receive support from the recently founded Desert Ecology and Conservation Center (DECC) that seeks to conserve the desert ecosystem and its biodiversity conservation and support the sustainable development of local communities. DECC regards the camel as the flagship of its efforts. According to its Dr. Changqing Yu, Department of Environmental Science, Tsinghua University, who is a technical advisor to both organisations, the biggest challenge is to develop new applications and income opportunities for the breeders.
The approximately thousand members of ACCA who pay a yearly membership fee have already become active. For one, they have been organising camel festivals in different parts of Alxa with camel races, beauty contest, competitions like twisting halters (twisting a three metre long halter within 20 minutes) and the competition to carve a nose peg out of red willow in 3 minutes. Competitors have to wear traditional Mongolian robes and be accompanied by their camels.
Another crucial activity of ACCA is to provide information on product prices to the camel breeders who are located in isolated areas and therefore find it difficult to negotiate a fair price with traders. In addition, they are scouting for new marketing options.
(Photo: Ao Yan Gao Wa )
The Alxa breed is famous for the fineness and volume of its hair which used to fetch good prices twenty years ago, but less so these days - maybe because of the popularity of Cashmere goat hair. Therefore the association is now looking into direct marketing to customers abroad, informs Mr. Da Er Jing, an office bearer of ACCA.
Camel milk and curd - made by adding yellow millet and other substances and incubating the milk for one week at a temperature of 27-30 degree Celsius - are marketed outside the town of Bayanhot. The milk fetches 40 Yuan (approximately 4 EURO) per kg and is popular for "flattering the leaders". According to some Japanese researchers, it contains a substance with anti-cancer properties.
The price for camel meat is 30 Yuan/kg. Camel meat is replacing beef since the grazing ban. After the ban came into effect, the people had to begin stall-feeding their animals, except for the camels which can still freely graze on natural vegetation. Stall-fed goat or mutton tastes like pig-meat according to local sources, so people are keen on camel meat.
Mr. Ao-ri-si-leng, director of the Left Banner Camel Association, explains that he is encouraging breeders to slaughter camels at home, instead of sending them to the abattoir in Yuanchan. This would provide an opportunity to market the organs separately, such as liver, kidneys, the feet, or the head, which would fetch premium prices. Especially camel hump and camel feet have the potential to become very famous dishes. However, as one Chinese camel herder put it "this is not part of our culture. I don't wish to slaughter the animals that I have raised myself."
Other potential products are the camel bone - which can be used as a material for painting or for sculpting objects.
Because of the emotional attachments of the breeders to their animals and because of the industriousness of ACCA, the camel population had gone back up to 70,000 head by 2004. The camel breeders are now expectant of a subsidy to be provided by the government for each camel kept. They are also pooling their land to create contiguous areas for camels to graze in order to establish a conservation base.
From the perspective of combating desertification and maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem, camels play an important role, at least according to traditional knowledge. The growth of the Saxaul tree one of the key-species of the area, is stimulated by camel browsing of its old leafs and twigs at the top. Camels also keep down the rats which have turned into a pest in recent years and threaten to wipe out the saxaul trees by feeding on their roots.
The truly community driven effort to bring back the Alashan camel highlights the advantages of in situ conservation over ex situ efforts: it creates benefits both for the breeders and for the environment.
Thanks to Mr. Da Er Jing for arranging my trip, to Ao Yan Gao Wa (aka Fay) for her translation, and for the other members of ACCA with whom I interacted. I am also grateful to the Ford Foundation for enabling me to travel to Inner Mongolia.
Government of China (2003); Country report for the State of the World of the Animal Genetic Resources.
Grazing at the Cradle of the Dust storm (2008); A photo story of humans and the environment in Alxa. Alxa in the eyes of the Farmers and the Herdsmen. By Ding Pingjun. Published by Academy Press and the Society for Entrepreneurs and Ecology, ISBN 978-7-5077-3071-5.
*The author works for League for Pastoral and Endogenous Livestock Development (LPP), Germany, one of the member organisations of the DRYNET initiative.