A Camel Quest

Gobi desertIn September, four German camel experts, one Mongolian nomad, a bunch of camels and I, a Dutch radio journalist, will embark on a journey through the Gobi desert. The camel experts – all women – are on a quest: they are hoping to save the critically endangered wild camel, of which there are only about 1200 individuals left, from extinction. The women will study the threats that the wild camels are facing and hope to meet some of the local nomads who could play a crucial role in the survival of the species.
And I? I will tag along and make a radio documentary about their adventures.

I must admit that I had never been particularly interested in camels before. I didn’t even know that wild camels existed. It had just never come to mind, let alone that I knew that they are an endangered species. But this all changed when I met Birgit Dörges, a behavioral scientist who talks with so much love about the camels that she has studied as other people would talk about their children.

I got to know Birgit because I was looking for an expert on camel behavior for a television show I was working on. This was easier said than done. There might be loads of scientists studying the behavior of primates, cattle and even pigeons, but camels didn’t appear to be a popular species among behavioral biologists. However, after a thorough search I found Birgit: a German camel expert who had – together with her husband – studied feral camels in the Australian outback over the course of 20 years. It was easy to note that she had grown attached to the animals that she studied; to the rebellious black camel she called Teufel (Devil), to the big bull she called Riese (Giant) and to Klaphöcker, the female with the flappy hump. She could tell me all I needed to know about camel sounds, their family structures, and their group behavior.

When I first talked to her, just a few months ago, Birgit had been back in Germany for about 13 years. But now, she told me, it was time for a new camel adventure. An acquaintance had invited her to join her and two other ‘camel crazy ladies’ on a trip to the Gobi desert. They were determined to save the wild camels of the Gobi and they could use Birgit’s expertise on camel behavior. Birgit was happy to help.

When Birgit told me about their plans, I was thrilled. Four women in the middle of a desert searching for the wild cousins of the domestic camels they were mounted on. Would they manage to help the endangered animals? And how would they cope with the harsh conditions in the desert themselves? It sounded like a once in a lifetime opportunity and I couldn’t help but ask: ‘would you mind if I came along?’
For a moment, Birgit looked at me in surprise, but then she smiled and said: ‘if the others won’t mind… why not!?’

That was just six weeks ago. In the meantime, the other camel experts agreed that I was welcome to join, the nomads arranged for an extra riding camel and I bought a ticket to Ulaanbaatar. Just two more weeks and we will be off.

I plan share my experiences here on my blog and on twitter (@saarslegers #CamelQuest) – at least, when there is some wifi or 3G available.

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