The Good Camel Story That Climate Fearmongers Don’t Tell

By Vijay Jayaraj

For centuries, Somali pastoralists have relied on camels for sustenance, transport and social status. In recent decades, camel husbandry has evolved into a very profitable business, transforming the lives of many Somalis.

However, the mainstream media, using images of dry lands, would have us believe that this flourishing enterprise is threatened by man-made climate change.

Camel Husbandry in the Horn of Africa and Media Fearmongering

Camels, also known as “ships of the desert,” truly stand out as remarkable creatures perfectly tailored to thrive in the parched, windswept landscapes of arid and semi-arid regions across the globe.

In the dry lowlands of Eastern Africa – from the sandy stretches of Somalia and Sudan to the rugged terrains of Ethiopia, across the vibrant plains of Kenya and into the desolate beauty of Djibouti –these majestic animals are nurtured with care, their presence a testimony to a long heritage of camel rearing in these lands.

More than 35% of livestock in Somalia are camels, with more than 50% of the populace dependent on revenue from the sector and accounting for half of the country’s gross domestic product. Camels are the number one livestock export of Somalia. In the Benadir region, it is estimated that “31.2 percent of the households consumed camel meat once in a week whereas 68.8 percent of the households consumed camel meat once a month.”

Even in the neighboring country of Ethiopia, some regions rank camel as the economically most important livestock species.

Given the importance of camels to these communities and the region’s frequency of droughts, doomsday stories featuring imagery of parched landscapes can be effective tools for peddling fear about climate change. A TRT World news report titled “Just2Degrees: How Climate Change Affects Global Security” claimed that warming is destroying the Somalian herding community and its ability to profitably breed camels.

But the reality is different.

Actual Reality: Boom in Camel Population

Somalia’s camel populations have surged in recent decades, thanks to ideal conditions for breeding and the growing economic incentive farmers reap from the sale of camel meat and milk.The camel population doubled between 1961 and 2020 in northern and western parts of Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, South Morocco as former Western Sahara, Mauritania, Burkina Faso) and the Horn of Africa (Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia).

In Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Kenya, and Djibouti, the population increased by a factor of 12 since 1963. Scientists also believe that “despite a probable underestimation of the worldwide camel population (estimated at around 40 million head in 2020), its growth is higher than for the other herbivorous farm animals.”

Disease and Inbreeding Are Actual Challenges

The impact of drought in the region has been exaggerated. Recurrent drought has long been a common problem in African rangelands. The catastrophic Ethiopian Famine from 1888 to 1892 claimed the lives of as many as one in three Ethiopians—a dark period known as “kifu qan’”or the “evil days.”

Disease and poor breeding methods are the real challenges for camel husbandry. In a survey, 92 percent of the pastoralists in Somalia’s Benadir region reported that camel diseases were the major obstacle to production.

Scientists who analyzed the genetic diversity of camel population in Somalia suggest that “genetic improvement of camels will lead to increased production and productivity, including the development of breeds for specialized purposes (meat, milk, and leather).” Greater genetic diversity can reduce the risk of disease and improve production.

So, let’s set the record straight: News reports of climate change damaging camel husbandry are fearmongering that exaggerate the effects of weather and ignore real problems being addressed by this important business. Overall, Africa’s hump-backed creatures are doing fine and likely to do better with improved management practices.

This commentary was first published at BizPac Review on April 23, 2024.

Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, U.K.

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