m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

O C T O B E R  1 9 9 9

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and two.)

Illustration by Jack Unruh When Sheikh Mohammed decided to pursue camel research, Twink Allen was an obvious person to consult. The sheikh knew the work of the Equine Fertility Unit -- indeed, all the unit's hay barns and most of its fences had come secondhand from the sheikh when he decided to rebuild two of his nearby stud farms. Allen's son-in-law is Frankie Dettorri, the house jockey for the Maktoum family's Godolphin team. At the sheikh's invitation, Allen set out to create, in Dubai, something akin to an Equine Fertility Unit for camels. The effort proceeded slowly. For one thing, managing a facility in Dubai from a desk in Newmarket proved to be impractical. Moreover, the assumption that the camel was a horse with a hump turned out to be simplistic -- as noted, all the basic science had to be done from scratch. Also, camels were not easy to handle: they could be stubborn and irascible, and proved intolerant of the poking and probing that cows and horses, standing upright, blithely accept. A single ultrasound scan might take hours.

Lulu Skidmore volunteered to take on the whole project. Skidmore had been what Allen calls the "embryo girl" at Newmarket -- responsible for flushing and preserving embryos in nonthoroughbred breeding experiments -- and had participated in the start-up work in Dubai. She had been an enthusiastic horsewoman all her life, had worked on a stud farm in South Africa, and had earned a degree in animal science from the University of London. She was independent and self-confident, with an adventurous streak. A senior Australian colleague, Professor Roger Short, advised Skidmore, as she later told me, "Look -- forget horses. Everybody knows everything about horses. If I were you, I'd go into camels. Nobody knows a thing about camels. You could be the queen of the field." So she proposed herself for the job of "camel girl" -- her term. Sheikh Mohammed's chief veterinary adviser, Ahmed Mustansir Billah, agreed to give it a try. The thought of working as a woman in an Arab culture did not bother Skidmore, and her hard work and obvious skill seem to have quelled any objections. Sheikh Mohammed himself underwrote her doctoral dissertation.

Her first decree as queen was to allow the camels to sit in her presence. No more upright palpation. It made all the difference. In our conversation Twink Allen kept drifting back to Skidmore's calming way with her subjects, describing it in a tone of awe. "She could pop in and scan the ovaries, which is what we needed to do, but that damn camel hardly knew she was there. I've seen them almost look around -- 'Oh, it's you, Lulu. Good morning' -- and carry on eating. When we were there, it sounded like a slaughterhouse with this banging and crashing, and camels moaning and groaning. Now it's like a morgue: shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, onto the ground, and away she goes and scans them. We designed some basic experiments to determine the reproductive physiology of the camel, which she completed and wrote up, and then she went on to do embryo transfer. Again, those small hands and the gentle female touch were helpful getting into the camel's vagina. Camels don't like it, whereas cows and horses don't give a damn."

Sheikh Mohammed endowed the Camel Reproduction Centre with a hundred racing camels and five stallions. Breeding experiments have brought the number to upwards of 200 camels. Promising bloodlines can now be developed, though the crucible of the racetrack remains several seasons away. A few minutes before it was placed in a surrogate, I examined under a microscope an embryo flushed from a valuable racing camel identified only as No. 1805. The embryo looked unremarkable -- a translucent circle with a bulbous rim. But in six years or so it may carry the sheikh's colors at Nad al Sheba.

THAT was fast," Skidmore said when Tipu and I returned from outside. Tipu had taken up position at a strategic moment, engineering the interception. Now he held the black-rubber tube by its neck, like a snake; the clear-plastic receptacle, at the other end, looked milky white. The storage of frozen sperm and frozen embryos has become routine for many animals, including horses and human beings, but camel sperm and camel embryos have so far proved largely uncooperative. Two visiting researchers at the lab, a woman from Cambridge University and a woman from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, had some new techniques they wanted to try. They took Tipu's offering and went to work.

The camel research stations in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere have had their eye mainly on the racetrack finish line; one has begun to show interest in breeding endangered species. The research agenda of the Camel Reproduction Centre is considerably broader. Ahmed Mustansir Billah, who oversees the Maktoum faunal enterprises, and who is Skidmore's administrative superior, is insistent about that. I visited Billah one morning at his office on the grounds of the sprawling Zabeel Feed Mill, which prepares specially enhanced and highly secret comestibles for Sheikh Mohammed's quails and falcons, his ostriches and flamingos, his gazelles and foxes, and above all his horses and camels. The Zabeel Feed Mill is adjacent to Sheikh Mohammed's Zabeel Stables, and the Zabeel insignia -- a white star on a maroon background -- is prevalent. Bags of feed stamped with the Zabeel colors are moved by forklift. Employees in Zabeel jumpsuits scurry about. If this were a James Bond movie, a silo would open up and a white star would appear on the nose cone of a maroon missile.

Billah, who is Tipu's brother-in-law, proudly indicated a pile of books on top of a filing cabinet -- copies of the camel conference's published Proceedings. In the lilting cadence of his native Pakistan, Billah's conversation ranged over many subjects relating to camels, including their personal qualities ("Such an affectionate animal -- given a choice, I would always choose a camel over a horse") and their gastronomical potential ("If you go for a tender one, it is very delicious, with a slightly sharp taste"). But always he emphasized the importance of the basic science being done in Dubai: "In terms of scientific achievement we are far and away ahead of anyone else. Far and away. Our work is internationally recognized." Camel research, he wanted me to understand, isn't just for racing anymore.

The vaguely llama-like creature at the Camel Reproduction Centre, who spends his time kicking a soccer ball around, is a case in point. The story of Rama, as Skidmore had called him, began some 30 million years ago, when the two main camel genera started to separate. The family Camelidae had originated in North America. One branch eventually moved south, to the Andes, evolving into the genus Lama, which includes the guanaco (domesticated by the Incas into the modern llama) and the vicuņa (domesticated into the alpaca). These New World camels became adapted to life at very high elevations and very low temperatures. The other branch of the family, which developed into the genus Camelus, moved north to Alaska and crossed into Siberia, eventually becoming the two-humped Bactrian camel of Mongolia and the one-humped dromedary camel that spread from northern India to Arabia to northern Africa. (It is a relative newcomer to Africa: the camel was unknown to the ancient Egyptians.) These Old World camels became adapted to living at sea level in hot, dry conditions.

Could the two branches be rejoined? They have the same number of chromosomes and the same reproductive oddities. But the Old World camels are by now six times as large as the New World ones. Inhabiting opposite sides of the Equator, the two species also evolved so as to become reproductively active at different times of the year. Unlike mules, which are produced by unions of horses and donkeys, hybrids of camel and llama would never occur naturally. However, artificial insemination and hormone therapy open a world of possibility.

After many setbacks, Skidmore was able to impregnate a female guanaco with camel sperm, producing a Camelus-Lama hybrid, or "cama" -- the first viable hybrid of Old and New World camels. Rama the cama, born on the day of the full moon during Ramadan, is so far the only creature of his kind. He has the woolly coat and the nose and nostrils of his mother, and the short ears and long tail of his father. His feet are a blend of the camel's two-toed conjoined footpad and the guanaco's cloven hoof. He is large but lacks a hump. Whether he is fertile will not be known for several years.

"It must be lonely, being him," I said to one of the frozen-sperm researchers, the young woman from Cambridge, as we watched Rama kick his soccer ball. She said, "Being a new species, you mean? He doesn't know it, though, does he? He thinks he's just like the rest of us." Behind us, in the examining bay, a camel's insistent moan acquired a tone of mild urgency as Skidmore pumped up a catheter balloon to plug the cervix. The camel guys grunted and leaned into the animal to keep it still. A tinny bar of "Whistle While You Work" somehow made itself heard.

The line on Sheikh Mohammed is that camel racing may have enticed him into the research field, but a broader view of camel science is why he stays. If the objective had been merely to learn how to pop out scores of healthy embryos from the very best camels, then the objective could be considered achieved, in Dubai and elsewhere. But at the Camel Reproduction Centre other investigations go on -- into placentation, luteolysis, and cloning, for example. The ability to freeze camel semen and camel embryos probably won't have a big payoff at Nad al Sheba, but it could be crucial in revitalizing and improving genetic stocks elsewhere in the world, and in selecting for traits other than speed. Every year Skidmore brings in veterinarians from Kenya and Tunisia, from Mauritania and Ethiopia and elsewhere in the Third World, for a week-long training course -- the Dubai equivalent of the Department of Agriculture's extension service. It's not entirely preposterous to imagine that we are in the process of creating a planet whose ecosystem will call rather urgently for what Camelus dromedariushas to offer.

Lulu Skidmore raised that possibility one afternoon as we sat in her office at the Dubai Camel Hospital. A room nearby holds a video library of all the camel races held at Nad al Sheba during the past decade, and I had watched enough for a lifetime. Through the half-open door of Skidmore's office I had a view of the bleached camel skeleton that stands guard over the hospital lobby.

"We could do a lot of good for other countries where they really do need the camels for meat," Skidmore said. "Where they really do need them for milk. Where they desperately need them for transport. Worldwide, camels are becoming a much more important animal, as we kill off our environment by building everything up and draining the water out and pulling up trees. Before long a lot of the world is going to be desert -- the desert is enlarging all the time. Camels will be one animal that can survive all this. We'll be farming camels instead of cattle and sheep. At the end of the day they're going to be a lifesaver."

Skidmore laughed. "Global warming," she said, "could be very good for me and my camels."

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and two.

Cullen Murphy is the author of The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (1998).

Illustrations by Jack Unruh. Some of the illustrations in this article are based on photographs by Florine de Haas van Dorsser.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Lulu, Queen of the Camels - 99.10 (Part Three); Volume 284, No. 4; page 72-82.