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close this book Camel milk. Properties and Products
close this folder 1 Introduction
View the document 1.1 Origin and domestication
View the document 1.2 Present distribution and economic potential
View the document 1.3 Physiological adaptation to the desert environment
View the document 1.4 Traditional husbandry and management

1.4 Traditional husbandry and management

In the literature some studies have been reported which deal to a lesser or greater extent with camel husbandry and the traditional management practices of the nomads. The most important of these studies are those by Lewis (1961), Nicolaisen (1963), Spencer (1973), and Cole (1975). Camels are held by nomads in arid regions and are not commonly found in areas where agriculture predominates. Pastoral land in arid areas is mainly covered with annual grass, acacias, euphorbias and dwarf bushes. The annual rainfall varies between 100 and 400 mm, the amount of rain varying from year to year and the rains being restricted to widely separated areas. This type of pasture permits only extensive types of animal production. Because of its high mobility, its modest fodder requirement and its water regulation perfectly adapted to the environment, the camel is better suited than any other domesticated animal to use this type of pasture (Fig. 1.2, 1.3).

In the nomadic economy, camels serve primarily as milk producers but are also used as pack and meat animals. This subsistence economy is based on two main traditional management patterns:

Utilization of pasture according to defined annual cycles

For optimal utilization of scarce feed and water resources nomads graze their animals according to an annual cycle. The camels are divided into two categories according to their economic utilization in the rainy and dry season. The first category consists of milking animals, as well as the 2 to 4 year-old animals. The second category is composed of males and females not giving milk. The first category grazes during the rainy and dry seasons in the immediate vicinity of the family to ensure milk supply. During the dry season this category also contains some pack animals, most of which are castrated. They are used to transport the dwellings as well as to fetch food and water from a great distance. The second category grazes in the rainy season at a distance of at most two hours from the kraals. Shortly after the end of the rainy season, the migration starts and the position of the kraals is changed according to the fodder and water situation. The camels are accompanied by young unmarried herdsmen. Often, the herdsmen dispatch a small reconnaissance group in advance in order to evaluate the grazing conditions, but also to establish whether other groups are already grazing their herds there. According to the nomads, camels can survive in times of extreme need for up to 30 days without water. This depends, however, on the grazing conditions and prevailing temperatures.

The salt requirement of camels is very high, being six to eight times higher than that of other domestic animals (Wilson 1984) and can only partly be satisfied by grazing. When the herdsmen observe that the camels are restless and have reduced appetite and milking performance, they take this to be a sure sign of salt deficiency. The camels are then driven to salty water sources and watered repeatedly. Alternatively, salt-containing earth collected from other areas is given to the animals.

Manipulation of the herd structure

It is often difficult to make meaningful statements on the numbers of camels owned by a nomad family. A family can possess a small number of animals because it has only recently separated from a large family, or become independent by division of an inheritance. Some years later, the situation will have completely changed. Such variations in the size of herd also arise from receipt or paying out of blood money or bride prices or through natural causes. Studies of many nomadic people in several countries show that female animals constitute 69 to 80 % of a camel herd. Table 1.3 shows the structure of 35 camel herds consisting of 80 to 100 camels each, which were observed over two years in Somalia (Hussein 1987a). Similar herd structures were established in Kenya (Spencer 1973), in Sudan (Wilson 1978) and with Tuareg groups in Mali (Swift 1979).

The high number of female animals is needed to satisfy the large milk requirement of the nomad economy. Male animals, separated from the herd, are used as pack animals, serve as gifts or are slaughtered.

Table 1.3 Structure of 35 observed herds in Somalia (Hussein 1987)


Class of stock

Share in the herd -%

Milk camels


Pregnant camels


Dry camels




Young males (less than 2 years)


Young females (less than 2 years)


Males for reproduction



Reproduction of the herds is achieved by selection of suitable male camels. According to several personal communications, these should have the following characteristics:

ú The bull or its father should have had predominantly female progeny with good milk performance

ú It should be fully grown and strong

ú It should be a good fighter able to overcome other males

It would be difficult to evaluate to what extent these selection criteria influence the quality of the progeny. One restriction arises from the fact that only the characteristics of the father, and not the characteristics inherited from the mother, are taken into account in the selection.

In general, breeds of camels are not as highly differentiated as breeds of other domesticated species. in most camel rearing societies, breed classifications are based on names of the clan as well as on the geographical localities where these camels are raised, rather than upon phenotypical characteristics. An exception is Somalia, where according to Hussein (1987b) three breeds of camels which are distinct by appearance exist. These are according to Somali terminology Hoor, Siifdaar und Eyddimo. The main differences between the three types of camels are summarized in Table 1 .4.

Table 1.4 Camel breeds in Somalia (Hussein, 1987b)

















mostly white

Production focus




Lactation period(months)




Milk per lactation(litres)




Milk let down




Maturity age(years)





Mating of camels takes place in the rainy season, seldom in the dry season (El-Amin 1979; Yagil and Etzion 1980c). The male covers the female repeatedly until she demonstrates signs of pregnancy. A sure sign of pregnancy according to Somali nomads is that a female approached by a male camel holds her tail erect, waves it to and fro and urinates slightly. A pregnant camel reacts in the same way when the herdsman approaches her holding a stick (Hartley 1979, and personal communication 1988). The gestation period ranges from 308 days (Schmidt 1973) to 440 days (Grzimek 1968). However, the average length of gestation period given in the literature is 390 days (Yagil 1985). Normally camels are sexually mature at the age of 4 to 5 years. A female camel accordingly has her first calf at 6 to 7 years of age. Under normal conditions, a female camel, giving birth every other year, will have 8 to 10 calves during her lifetime, which is on average 25 to 30 years (Yassin and Abdul Wahid 1957; Williamson and Payne 1978).