The first animal that pops to mind when people talk about endangered species in Iran is the Asiatic cheetah, followed by the Persian fallow deer, caracal, Siberian crane and maybe Pallas’s cat.
However, Iran is home to another threatened species: the Bactrian camel, a large, two-humped camel native to the steppes of Central Asia.
In fact, the camel has the same conservation status as the Asiatic cheetah — critically endangered — according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Yet, the animal rarely receives the attention it deserves.
“There are less than 600 Bactrian camels worldwide and fewer than 100 in Iran,” Iman Memarian, senior veterinarian at the Pardisan Wildlife Clinic in northwestern Tehran, told Mehr News Agency.
The history of Bactrian camels in Iran is unclear, but the Avesta, the religious book of Zoroastrians written between 570 and 530 BC in ancient Persia, mentions camels frequently. However, it does not specify if the camels had one or two humps.
They are mostly found in Ardebil and Golestan provinces, in northwest and northeast Iran respectively.
Hybridization: the Main Threat
Similar to all other endangered species, the Bactrian camel is threatened by loss of habitat due to mining and industrial development. However, the greatest threat facing the critically endangered species is interbreeding and hybridization, according to Memarian.
“Ever since the wild Bactrian camel was domesticated, it has been forced to breed with its one-humped relative (dromedary camel) which is a cause for concern,” he said.
Conservationists say interbreeding and subsequent hybridization will lead to the loss of the genetically distinct Bactrian camel.
“This happens everywhere in the world where the camel is found, more so in Iran than anywhere else,” Memarian said, adding that there are breeders in the vicinity of Tehran who freely breed Bactrian camels with dromedaries.
The governments of China and Mongolia have agreed to cooperate in order to protect the species and its fragile desert ecosystem.
Assisted by the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, the two governments have adopted an ecosystem-based management program which aims to protect the biodiversity of the Great Gobi Desert. Two reserves have been created – the ‘Great Gobi Reserve A’ in Mongolia in 1982, and the Arjin Shan Lop Nur Nature Reserve in China in 2000.
Iran does not even have a conservation plan in place for the rare species.
“We’ve done absolutely nothing,” Memarian said. “The mentality at the Department of Environment is that if [the animal] is not a native species, it won’t be a priority.”
Pointing to the historical significance of the Bactrian camel, the veterinarian said protecting the animal’s gene pool is important. “By some accounts, they have been in Iran since the 6th or 7th century BC — we have to care about their survival.”
Due to their rarity, Bactrian camels command much higher prices than dromedary camels. Aside from boasting an extra hump compared to their one-humped relatives, Bactrians grow a thick coat of hair each winter, which falls off every spring. This is to deal with the extreme variation of temperature in the Gobi desert where summer highs often top 40 degrees Celsius and winter months can see significant amounts of snow, according to the conservation website edgeofexistence.com.
Furthermore, Bactrian camels are much more mild-mannered than their hot-tempered dromedary kin.
By Financial Tribune