Press "Enter" to skip to content

How Many Humps on a Camel? In Kazakhstan, It’s Complicated

AKTAU, Kazakhstan — In most of the world, camels come in two types: two-humped Bactrian and one-humped dromedary.

But nothing is so simple out in the desert of Kazakhstan, where the camels roaming about, munching shrubs, come in a dizzying array of back shapes — most of them some version of one-and-a-half-humped. This is no accidental, naturally occurring oddity.

“All the best specialists in hybridization are in Kazakhstan,” Yuri V. Gabrov, director of the Moscow Ethnographic Society and an authority on camels, said in an interview. “They are way out in front.”

Kazakhstan, a vast and sparsely populated nation in Central Asia, is growing its camel herds by mating two-humped and one-humped camels, producing hybrids that are hardy to cold like Bactrian breeds, while producing copious milk like dromedaries.

Demand for the animals is driven by the improbable rise in popularity of a fermented camel milk drink known as shubat. It also stems from a push by the government to develop agriculture and diversify the economy away from oil; the Kazakh Ministry of Agriculture provides loans to farmers to expand the hybrid herds.

ImageCreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

This kind of camel husbandry was widespread in pre-industrial Central Asia, where for centuries the most common form of hybrid, known as a “Nar camel,” was the preferred beast of burden for east-west trade with China. But the practice largely faded in the early 20th century, when the Soviet authorities confiscated livestock from nomads during collectivization.

As Kazakhstan pulled out of its post-Soviet economic slump, the camel herds also recovered. The number of camels in Kazakhstan rose to 191,000 in 2017 from 96,000 in 1999, the last year for which figures are available, according to the state statistics agency.

At the same time, hybrids became more common, giving rise to the distinctive one-and-a-half-humped animals now seen roaming Kazakhstan’s arid landscape.

“Up until a decade ago, Bactrian camels were the norm,” said a 2017 study on Kazakhstan’s camel herds, published in the Journal of Arid Land Studies. “The situation is changing.”

The study found that 80 percent of the country’s camels were hybrids.

“Now many people are keeping camels,” said Gulnara Uteniyazova, a camel milkmaid out on a recent, sweltering day, maneuvering through her grunting, snorting herd with a pail, at a camel farm on the steppe. She said her family owns about 80 head, mostly hybrids. “It’s good business.”

ImageCreditTara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

Kazakh veterinarians have documented 32 types of hybrid, of which about 20 are raised commercially. The hump arrangement depends on the degree of hybridization.

The most common hybrid is achieved by mating a Bactrian male, with its two distinct humps and a pronounced dip between them, with a female dromedary. Most other varieties are created by “back crossing” the resulting hybrids with other two-humped males. Unlike mules, donkey-horse hybrids that are almost always sterile, the offspring of a Bactrian and dromedary pairing are fertile.

The result is a great diversity out in the windswept desert.

A first-generation hybrid has a single but flattened hump. Subsequent generations have a variety of one-and-a-half humps: a single hump with two crests; two clearly articulated small humps; or one large and one small hump. The cross never results in a three-humped camel.

In another breakthrough in crossbreeding, in the 1990s scientists bred a llama — a relative of the camel — and a dromedary, resulting in a beast called the cama.

Kazakhs have taken pride in their expanding, unusual herds. Kazakhstan is “the leader in selective breeding of camels, with nothing comparable elsewhere in the world,” a business news site, In Business, wrote last fall.

ImageCreditWolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket, via Getty Images

Shubat, the fermented camel milk drink, is prized for being highly probiotic, not to mention a little bit alcoholic.

“If you let the milk sit for two weeks it becomes shubat all by itself,” Ms. Uteniyazova, the milkmaid, said cheerily. The milk is said to “stand up” and become the drink as it fizzes and curdles.

For longtime shubat drinkers, determining the number of humps on the camel that produced the milk is easy, because Bactrian milk is more fatty than dromedary milk. The closer the hybrid to Bactrian, the richer the milk. Which is better is a question of taste.

“This is not so good,” complained Sakin Murabayev, a bus driver at a highway rest stop in western Kazakhstan where shubat is served, after downing a pint and wiping the milky mustache from his upper lip. He preferred, he said, milk from breeds closer to Bactrian.

To be sure, a glass of shubat of any type, with its sour tang and mysterious globs of milk fat, can be difficult for the uninitiated to get down. But it is undeniably popular in Kazakhstan, creating demand for the crossbred camel herds.

Mr. Murabayev offered advice on storing the drink. “If you leave it out, it will start to bubble and you cannot drink it,” he said.

But rather than throwing it out, this extra-ripe shubat can be blended with fresh camel milk, thus yielding more shubat after a few days. “Then you can drink it.”


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.