When the Three Wise Men followed the Star to Bethlehem, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were travelling on camels. These are extraordinary animals, seemingly created by the desert, and therefore equipped in every way to withstand the harshness of the journeys. Without camels there would be no trade that flourished across the countries bordering the African deserts and Arabic countries. The substantial wealth of various countries, like Mali, Ghana or Chad to Syria, Iran, Iraq and beyond, came from transporting salt, called ‘white gold’, textiles, gold, and many other goods. Without camels this would not have been possible. And yet, they were originally native to the Arabian Peninsula, and introduced to Africa around the ninth century BC.
The camel is an example of the perfection of nature’s design. Tall, 7-foot high with the hump, with long legs, he can easily carry a heavy load. The characteristic hump on his back contains fat which is indispensable as a source of energy when there is no food around. As he can drink at one go 40 gallons of water, he can travel a long distance without drinking or eating. The eyes have three eyelids and two rows of eyelashes to prevent sand, even in a sandstorm, entering his eyes. For the same reason, his ears are furry and his nostrils close between two breaths. His even-toed feet don’t sink into the sand because on touching the ground the two toes spread wide, thus allowing the camel to walk unperturbed. Normally docile, when provoked they use their big-lipped snout to spit green gunk from their stomach, and they kick expertly with all four legs. Camel’s milk is very healthy as it contains less fat than cow’s milk, and is rich in iron, vitamins and minerals. It is now becoming the drink of choice for many people.
Camels are also an example that everything in the natural world is connected, and is an essential part of the ecosystem. When the camel caravan stops for a much-needed refreshing break at a known water point, like Guelta d’Archei in Chad, the camels drink, bathe and defecate. This camel bodily function is of great importance to the algae in the water as they are fertilised by the droppings. The fish and shrimps there feed on algae, and the resident (now rare) crocodiles feed on the fish. A co-existence chain at its best. They are also the only animals unaffected by sandstorms, and highly valued by people who travel across the desert.
Recently, scientists found that camel’s blood has unusual diminutive antibodies that may be used in fighting cancer. Called nanobodies, their binding can fit into crevices on molecules and remain functional within cells. These are still early stages of the research but never the less promising.
In Western Sahara, among the sand dunes, there are new green pastures that have not been there for hundreds of years. We don’t know if it is a result of climate changes but the caravans of camels and the traders welcome the greenery. Somewhere there, lives a Bedouin tribe, famous for offering water and food to a weary traveller, with the greeting: ‘ Welcome, my friend, the stranger.’