Camelback Riding and Camel Treks

Camels are known as the ships of the desert, but this doesn’t mean that they are always in a condition to ship tourists around.

Most desert based countries have a strong industry in tourist driven camel back rides and treks, and many hotels and travel agents offer these excursions. These could be rides across sand dunes, to ancient sites of interest, or simply short walks just for the experience. The one thing these places have in common is that they all tend to be very hot during tourist season. Although camels are designed for the tough desert conditions, they still have basic needs which must be met in order to be comfortable, strong, and healthy enough to carry passengers and survive the harsh conditions.

What is it?

Camels are sensitive creatures and although nature has adapted camels to survive in some very inhospitable conditions, many where other animals and humans would struggle, in order to do this they need to have their basic animal welfare needs met.

Water is scarce in the desert, and although camels can go very long distances and for many weeks (and sometimes even months) without water in winter, in summer and in any time of high heat, they do need to have regular access to food and water when working hard. Many tourist camels have saddles designed to carry two people at once – the weight of which can be extremely heavy, so a good feeding, watering and health routine is vital to avoid discomfort.

What you should know

  • Camels are remarkable creatures, designed exactly for the desert environment. Originally they were domesticated thousands of years ago by desert traders, who started to use them to make the long and harsh journey from southern Arabia to the Middle East. From there, the camel went on to become the desert man’s friend and protector – providing transport, shade, milk, meat, wool and leather. Despite common belief their hump (dromedary) or humps (Bactrian) are not filled with water. They are in fact filled with fat. When food and water become scarce the camel extracts energy from the fat supply.
  • Similar to horses, they are expected to carry tourists as a source of income for local people and local companies, as well as providing a source of income for hotels and travel agents selling the tours as agents. Just like working equines, as they are primarily an income source, rather than a pet or farm animal, they can often be treated, housed and worked in poor conditions. As every ride on every camel equals money for the owner, any sick, old or injured camel not available for trekking or walking will therefore not provide income. It is for this reason that it is common that owners will work their camels when they are ill or frail, injured, or physically exhausted.
  • Tourists often are a different size and weight to local people, and although someone may be far too heavy for the camel, most camel owners will allow the ride to go ahead, valuing their income over and above the welfare of the animal.

As a tourist you should look out for the following things if considering a camel ride or trek – remember these 5 steps as CAMEL:

Can this camel realistically take my height and weight?
Are the camels generally in good condition – with a healthy coat and positive body language (see below)?
Malnourished camels should not be worked – are the camels a good weight? Can you see access to water and food at the camels resting place?
Equipment – does all of the equipment used, such as mouth bits, saddles and harnesses look to be in good condition and well fitting?
Length of trek – how many miles is the camel expected to take you – bear in mind your weight, the terrain, access to water, and the heat. Is this a realistic journey for the animal to complete comfortably?

  • All animals give indications of their welfare state through their physical appearance and their behaviour – and you don’t need to be a vet to see it. Just take a minute to look at the camel, walk around it, look at it close up and at a distance. Just like working equines, there are some simple things to note which will give you a good indicator of health, such as the animal’s contentment – often measurable by body language. In this case, lowered heads (when not eating) and/or a lack of interest and awareness of the surrounding environment and other animals can be a sign of discontentment. Lameness is also fairly easy to spot – look for limping, uneven walking and shorter than normal strides when walking. If you can really see the animals skeleton clearly, then they may be malnourished or being worked too hard. The less cover of these bones, the greater the likelihood of sores and injuries are, and these sores – just like for humans – will rub and cause massive discomfort for all animals. Don’t forget also that your weight as a passenger can cause saddles and harnesses to rub onto open wounds or sores, meaning pain, infection and a lack of healing.
  • Also remember – don’t believe that camels need to be whipped or beaten to make them work. Look to see how the owner or driver interacts with his animal(s) – a gentle tap should be enough to tell the camel what he needs to do, bearing in mind the habitual and repetitive nature of the camel’s work. Despite what many owners and tourists may think, beating only means that the animal is being pushed harder than it is comfortable with.

What you can do

  • If you go to a place offering camel trekking and are keen to take part, just remember CAMEL. Don’t forget that just because you are on holiday your standards should remain. Sometimes to measure this it’s worth considering if would you put the animal through the same in your home town? If not, don’t take part!
  • If you are taking part in these activities then reward those owners with the healthiest looking camels with your business. Although you may think that going for the ones in the worst condition will allow the owner to buy them some food, realistically the owner may not be thinking this, and you may find that by doing this you are simply exacerbating the situation.
  • Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to select a camel for yourself if you are offered one that doesn’t look like it can take your weight, and if the owner/driver beats the camel ask him to stop. Remember – there is no industry without customers. Quite simply, happy tourists make for good business.
  • By working with the owners to discourage lack of welfare, and by voting with your feet when the camels aren’t healthy, you can help to make a long term positive change. Remember also – sometimes it’s quicker to walk!

Where does this occur?

Countries particularly affected include: Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Chile, Chad, China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Mongolia, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Oman, Peru, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Western Sahara and Yemen.