Tuesday 9 May 2000

Camels may hold key to preventing famine caused by drought

Veterinary expert says animal's milk could alleviate hunger in the world's deserts

Special to the Globe and Mail
Tuesday, May 9, 2000

Negev Desert, Israel -- An Israeli veterinary expert is planning a camel farm in a joint venture with Jordan that he believes will prove that the animal can solve hunger problems in areas of the world plagued by drought.

Prof. Reuven Yagil of Ben-Gurion University Medical School in Beersheba has been working with camels for 30 years; travelling to places such as Kazakhstan, Kenya and China to help local farmers increase the milk yield of their camels.

"Camels are considered very primitive, but they thrive in areas where children are dying of hunger," he said. "I wanted to see if the camel could provide anything for humans in these areas."

In a small experimental farm on the border between Jordan and Israel in the Negev desert, Prof. Yagil is breeding a herd of 40 camels for their milk. He has increased their production from the standard one litre to 15 litres a day, and says they could provide even more if he had the staff to milk them more often.

One camel he calls Naim is 14 years old and will give milk until she is 25, much longer than a cow. Her yield has not been reduced by living in a corral instead of grazing across the desert plains.

Her calf suckles to get the milk going, and within 90 seconds Prof. Yagil and his wife have milked just under five litres of fresh milk. Drunk soon afterward, still warm and unpasteurized, it is similar to cow's milk, a little stronger in taste and thinner in texture.

"In these [arid] areas, the cows are not there, they die," said Prof. Yagil, adding that cows also need high-quality feed.

"We're feeding the camels the stuff they throw away from the farms. We feed them salt bushes, cacti leaves or peanut hay, so you cannot compare. Even if the camel is giving only 15 litres, the camel is much more economical."

The milk keeps up to nine days in a refrigerator. Unlike cow's milk, it does not separate when frozen and can keep for up to two years. Camel's milk cannot be made into cheese because it lacks the necessary fats, but it can be used for other purposes.

This summer, the Tel Aviv ice cream festival will feature Prof. Yagil's DromeDairy ice cream in strawberry, cherry and peanut butter flavours.

Camel's milk also has curative properties and is used in Arab society as defence against infection. Many children of wealthy families in the Gulf States are sent to live with Bedouin for a month every year so they can drink camel milk and strengthen their natural immune systems.

Prof. Yagil, a native of South Africa who now lives on a kibbutz in the Negev, is a professor of medicine and a former veterinarian for the Israeli Army Camel Corps. He claims to be the world's top expert on camels; his interest was sparked through a friendship with a Bedouin tribesman.

Discussions are well advanced to set up a joint Israeli-Jordanian camel farm in Moshav Tsofar, an Israeli farm in the Negev desert that has an enclave of land across the border with Jordan.

Prof. Yagil's work has sparked interest as far away as China. Prof. Shin Cui, head of Beijing University's veterinary department and the person responsible for developing the neglected areas of northwest China, visited Prof. Yagil's farm recently to see his methods firsthand.

"Prof. Yagil came to the Gobi Desert where we have hundreds of thousands of camels and spoke to local farmers about his ideas," said Prof. Cui. "We hope to implement some of his methods back in China."

In northern Kenya, where Prof. Yagil has been training camel farmers on the edge of the African desert, they are planning to set up farms that could produce up to a million litres of milk each day.

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