Lulu, Queen of the Camels

In its loopy way the dromedary camel is already perfect, but in recent years biologists have been competing to refine it. The motivation comes from camel racing -- the Sport of Sheikhs

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

JULIAN Skidmore is lithe and petite, with small wrists and delicate features, and a serene but determined countenance. Watching Skidmore at work for a while, her auburn hair held back by a blue ribbon, a glint of light catching the small pearl in each earlobe, I was reminded of Gainsborough's portrait of the young Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Then Skidmore removed her left arm from a camel's rectum, peeled off a shoulder-length Krause Super-Sensitive disposable examination glove, and said, "Can I make you a cup of coffee?" She had completed eight of the morning's sixteen ultrasound scans. It was time for a break.

Illustration by Jack Unruh

Skidmore, an Englishwoman known to everyone as Lulu, has emerged during the past few years as among the foremost practitioners in one of the world's more improbable growth industries. There are many reasons why Camelus dromedarius, the single-humped dromedary camel of Africa, Arabia, and southern Asia, might have deserved to become a focus of scientific investment. To begin with, about 14 million of these animals roam the planet. The dromedary camel is a baroque masterpiece of biological engineering. It is relied upon by millions of people for meat and milk, and as a means of transportation. In truth, however, the impetus to scientific study came from none of these things. It came from a passion for competitive camel racing on the part of Middle Eastern sheikhs, who have been known to pay more than $1 million for a superior racing camel, and who relish the prospect of a breeding program for camels similar to what has long existed for thoroughbred racehorses. Establishing such a program has turned out to be harder than anyone anticipated.

Lulu Skidmore works for His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai and the Defense Minister of the United Arab Emirates. The Maktoum family, which has ruled Dubai since the 1830s, has for decades been among the most powerful forces in the world of horse racing. Sheikh Mohammed himself owns more thoroughbred racehorses than anyone else in the world, and during a typical year in British competition the horses fielded by the Maktoum family's Godolphin Stables claim the greatest number of wins. Outside the Middle East the sheikh's deep interest in the ancient sport of camel racing is not well known. But the Maktoums are reputed to own a herd of 10,000 camels, and Sheikh Mohammed keeps a string of 2,000. His camels are eyed with envy by other sheikhs, and his stable maintains an imposing presence on the camel tracks of the Arab world.

The demands of camel racing have created, almost overnight, a thriving new field of biological endeavor -- one that has proved irresistible even to researchers who began their careers with a different focus entirely. Two decades ago the field of camel biology was virtually nonexistent. For all the lore and mystique surrounding the camel, the byways of its physical functioning were far less well known than those of the cat, the rat, or the nematode. And yet by 1992 the First International Camel Conference could draw some 200 specialists to Dubai. A second international conference is now being planned.

Lulu Skidmore is already looking beyond that point. "Obviously, the motivation for all this work was racing," she says. "But the sheikh is keen that Dubai should be on the map. From Dubai's point of view, it is important to be on the map in the world of science as well as in the world of camel racing. And the science could be doing a lot of good for other countries."

THE desert sheikhdom of Dubai, one of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, is essentially a city-state straddling a strategic inlet on the northeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Oil was discovered in Dubai only three decades ago, and the oil will probably run out before another three decades have passed. The rulers of Dubai have set out to make the sheikhdom a mercantile entrepôt and financial hub, and they are succeeding. Skyscrapers in compelling shapes rise above Dubai Creek, where dhows are moored five deep along the waterfront. Construction is under way everywhere, and open trucks haul immigrant workers from site to site. In the older parts of the city elegant wind towers of stone and daub rise above the houses, trapping the gulf breezes and directing them below. Desalination plants make possible golf courses and polo grounds and lush median strips. The souks are clean and freshly swept, and not far distant from shopping malls where the names Armani and Ralph Lauren and Moschino are prominent. There is no crime to speak of; the main local newspaper ran a story while I was there, earlier this year, about the trial of someone who had been charged with pickpocketing.

On the streets native Emiratis gowned in crisp white dishdashas, their heads covered with red-and-white-checked gutras, walk among a population that has become polychrome and polyglot. At the Hotel Inter-Continental the daily breakfast buffet features French toast, salted hammour fish, baked beans, channa masala, miso soup, fried rice, lamb chops, and Cheerios. Television channels are available in Japanese and Hindi. The one bookstore I found in Dubai had an aisle devoted to "Oprah's Book Club." Women in Dubai may drive cars, and Western women may lie on the beach in bikinis. But there is no lack of reminders about where you really are. On a table in my hotel room a small sticker with an arrow labeled QIBLA showed the direction for prayer. Minarets rise above every neighborhood. A banner at an important intersection reminds the passing traffic, in Arabic and English, "Don't Forget Kuwait's Missing POWs."

The camel track lies on the outskirts of Dubai, at a place called Nad al Sheba, and during the racing season the green, red, white, and black national flag of the Emirates flutters atop high poles that line the road leading out from town. The races take place on a vast oval more than six miles around. In Saudi Arabia the races may go twice as far. Camels are not as fast as racehorses, but they have a lot more stamina -- they start out at about forty miles an hour, and can hold a pace of twenty miles an hour for more than half an hour. They have been known to run at ten miles an hour for eighteen hours. The designation dromedarius has nothing to do with humps -- it comes from the Greek word for "running." If the Greek were more candid, it would mean "running with a loopy gait while maintaining an expression of haughty insouciance."

During a race, in which fifty or more camels may compete, trainers and owners in jeeps speed around the inside of the track, talking with their jockeys by radio. The jockeys are helmeted boys, each riding behind his camel's hump and wielding a riding crop the length of a fishing rod. (Because weight makes a difference, the age of jockeys has been an issue for years in some parts of the camel-racing world; in Dubai the minimum weight was officially set not long ago at about 100 pounds, and authorities have cracked down on offenders in several highly publicized recent cases.) I watched scores of jockeys at play one afternoon as a dusky blood-orange sun hovered above the sands and turned the boys into lines of flickering shadow that seemed to stretch to the horizon. Behind them camels by the hundreds were led by trainers from the racetrack to the far stables, diminishing ultimately into little more than silhouetted flecks of movement. Looking at the sky, I would not have been surprised to see the words "A David Lean Production."

Camel racing has always been a Bedouin pastime. But only during the past twenty years or so has it become a highly organized activity -- the Sport of Sheikhs, as it might be called, with large investments in bloodlines and facilities. In the 1990s a dozen new camel racetracks have been built in the Emirates alone. During the month of March camel racing is to Arabian television what basketball is to American. The grandstand at Nad al Sheba, under its tentlike canopy, resembles a diminutive Denver airport. It is set among date palms on a manicured lawn that covers the desert like a putting green. The crowd at a camel race is diverse: members of the ruling family are thrown together with laborers from Pakistan and Britons in blue blazers. No betting is permitted, because Islam frowns on gambling. But a lottery dispenses door prizes among the spectators, and the prizes carry the names Lexus and Range Rover. At Nad al Sheba the morning races are primarily for camels owned by sheikhs and the afternoon races are reserved for everyone else. A Bedouin's dream is to win one of these afternoon races and sell the victorious camel to a sheikh on the spot.

The intense interest in camel racing in the Emirates is not so much about money as about cultural heritage. The traditional Bedouin way of life is verging on extinction, but the animal at its heart can still be exalted. It is difficult to overestimate the centrality of the camel in the Arab imagination. The Koran praises the horse and the sheep, but then comments pointedly, "The Almighty in making animals created nothing preferable to the camel." Speakers of Arabic have many words to express every refinement of the cameloid condition. Dhaqun, for instance, refers to "a she-camel that relaxes her chin so as to make her lower lip hang down while going along." Four-wheel drive has supplanted the camel's traditional function as a means of conveyance; nowadays you'll often see camels themselves being driven around in trucks. But people continue to hold camels in the highest esteem.

Inevitably, the fires of cultural nationalism have been fanned by the simoon of competition. The camel-racing sheikhs have ample resources, and they have sunk vast sums into the buying and training of camels. There are some 14,000 active racing camels in the Emirates. The sheikhs have built special treadmills and swimming pools to give the animals exercise. They have experimented with dietary supplements. They have mounted attacks on trypanosomosis and camel pox. They have hired physiologists, nutritionists, even psychologists. And, of course, they have begun to think about improving the racing stock, through scientific breeding programs and careful attention to pedigree.

Here the devotees of modern camel racing have faced a challenge. Think of the issue as a problem in mathematics. A thoroughbred racehorse starts competition at the age of two, and its career may be pretty well over by the age of four or five. It can begin life as a dam or a sire very early, and the track records of its progeny will be known within a few years -- as will the track records of their progeny, and their progeny's progeny, and so on.

With camels each step in this process is more time-consuming. A camel is not mature enough to start racing until the age of five or six, and its competitive abilities are not known until the age of six or seven. Scientific breeding can then start, but it will be another seven or eight years before the careers of the camel's first offspring can be evaluated.

Moreover, there won't be all that many offspring. In horse breeding a successful stallion can sire fifty to eighty foals a year, and may go to its grave with a thousand living descendants. But the preferred racing camels are female; the males are relatively ill-tempered and difficult to deal with. Each pregnancy lasts thirteen months, and in a typical reproductive lifetime of twenty years a camel may bear no more than about twelve calves. Here's an added element of torment for breeders: a camel's racing life potentially extends for many years beyond its reproductive maturity, and each pregnancy means the loss of more than a year of competition by what may be one of the fastest racing camels in Arabia.

There would be no way around these problems if the rules of thoroughbred horse racing applied to camels. Thoroughbreds must be conceived and brought to term the natural way -- no shortcuts allowed, however enticing the options offered today by artificial insemination, embryo transfer, and other reproductive technologies. The traditionalism of thoroughbred breeding underlies the lucrative system of stud farms and the global cycling of prime stallions, who chase the hemispheric springtime from north to south, and in a good year may cover scores of mares apiece. But there is no Jockey Club in camel racing to lay down this kind of law, and there is plenty of money for science.

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

Illustration by Jack Unruh

THE desert in Dubai is as much a time as it is a place: it begins the moment resistance to it relents. The desert runs unbroken from Dubai City to the Hajar Mountains. Twenty-five miles southeast of Dubai, at Nakhlee, on the highway to Hatta, a gatepost sign you could easily miss marks an unpaved road to the right. Early one morning Lulu Skidmore pulled off the highway and onto this road. The sandy embankment on both sides was strewn with the yellow fruit known as desert apples. Geckos darted about. Down the road a little ways was a compound of low-slung ocher buildings. Camels stood in wire stockades everywhere: black camels from Saudi Arabia, tan camels from the Emirates, white camels from Sudan. In the stockades the females had been separated from the males. The males had been separated from one another.

This is the Camel Reproduction Centre, where Skidmore is the scientific director. The laboratory is a mainstay of Arabia's camel infrastructure -- its Los Alamos, perhaps. Another mainstay is the Dubai Camel Hospital, near the Nad al Sheba racetrack, which serves as Skidmore's office. (One room in the hospital complex holds a raised slab with a large hole cut out of the middle. Skidmore responded to my raised eyebrow: "For the hump. It's an operating table.") Abu Dhabi, the sheikhdom adjacent to Dubai on the west, and the richest of the emirates, is home to three research stations: the Sheikh Hazza Camel Reproduction Research Centre, the Sheikh Khalifa Camel Embryo Transfer Research Centre, and the Sheikh Khalifa Scientific Centre for Racing Camels. The Saudis operate a Camel Research Centre at King Faisal University, in Al-Ahsa. Sultan Qaboos, of Oman, runs a small research facility in Muscat. All these places rely on imported staff and consultants, who have come from England and America, Australia and South Africa, and whose presence affirms the Koran's insight: Horses and sheep may be wonderful, but there is nothing preferable to the camel.

Skidmore was driving a Nissan Super Safari and talking on her ever-present cell phone. Its ring, a tinny version of "Whistle While You Work," serves as a kind of Lulu Positioning System. We drove past several men in long tunics and baggy pants -- tribesmen from somewhere on the Afghan-Pakistan border. "The boys," Skidmore called them, or sometimes, more formally, "the camel guys." They looked vigilant and implacable. The camel guys were tethering a small herd of camels outside the entrance to the lab's examining bay, where the animals would be given ultrasound scans. We drove past a stocky young man who smiled and waved. This was Tipu Billah, who in effect manages the Camel Reproduction Centre. I have also seen him described, in some literature about the facility, as the person who "perfected the technique for collection of semen from camels for insemination purposes." We drove on a little farther, made a loop around the stockades, and came back to the compound. In a pen near the entrance a vaguely llama-like creature kicked around a soccer ball, happily oblivious. "That's Rama," Skidmore said. I learned more about him later.

Inside, Skidmore showed off her lab -- her incubators, her freezers, her progesterone-assay machine, her semen-loading machine -- and introduced the lab technician, Ajaz Hussain. Then she donned beige coveralls, went out to the examining bay, and pulled a latex examination glove over her left arm. Ajaz Hussain handed her the ultrasound scanner.

For the next hour and a half the camel guys orchestrated a decorous pavane. A camel would be led in and made to sit, its double-jointed hind legs collapsing tidily above a rope laid on the floor. The ends of the rope were pulled up and knotted atop the camel's back, immobilizing the animal. The camel guys put down a shovelful of feed where the camel could reach it. As the camel began to eat, Skidmore sat down on a mat near its other end, scooped out thirty or forty pellets of dry feces, and entered the rectum with the scanner until it reached a point just above the uterus, which offered sonic access to the ovaries. Skidmore's head was tilted up to the right, toward a video monitor on a low trolley. The grainy image on the monitor segued through wobbly mutations and then settled itself: Skidmore had found a follicle, and was counting eggs. She reported her findings aloud -- "Another couple of days before she's at the right stage" -- as Ajaz Hussain took notes. By then the camel guys had prepared another animal for examination. Skidmore withdrew the scanner, stood up, kicked the mat over to the next camel, sat down, and repeated the drill. She performed eight examinations, took a break, and performed eight more. This is how Skidmore spends every morning during the dromedary camel's reproductive season. The season runs from October to April.

Here is what Skidmore is up to. Using hormones, she wants to "superovulate your top-class female," as she puts it -- that is, stimulate the very best racing camels to produce more than one egg at a time. (Her record is twenty-five.) She wants to fertilize those eggs, either by actually mating the female with a desired male or by means of artificial insemination. Eight days after fertilization she wants to harvest all the embryos -- she passes a balloon catheter through the cervix, inflates the balloon to seal the opening, fills the uterus with a saline solution, and then drains the solution, flushing the embryos out. Finally, she wants to transfer the microscopic embryos into the wombs of run-of-the-mill camels who can carry the embryos to term, allowing the biological mother to return to racing. To undertake these interventions Skidmore needs to monitor every stage of every breeding camel's reproductive cycle with ultrasound scans and hormone assays. Getting to the point where clinical data even made any sense required tedious baseline studies, consuming Skidmore's first few years on the job. How do camels produce follicles? When do they show estrus? If they conceive, what are the hormonal changes? If they don't conceive, when do they come back in to estrus? There was nothing about any of this in the clinical literature.

During the break Skidmore sipped her coffee and gave some instructions to Tipu. Through the window I had noticed a female camel squatting expectantly in the sand, out by the stockades, and now one of the camel guys was leading a stallion toward her. The stallion was displaying his soft palate, a declaration of intent. From a shelf Tipu took what looked like a protective sheath for a telescope, a black rubber device about thirty inches long and five inches wide, open at one end and with a clear-plastic receptacle at the other. He tilted the opening toward me, displaying a precise configuration of foam rubber inside. "Very important to be just like the cervix," he explained. "Took many, many tries." He turned away and reached again for the shelf, retrieving a dented tube of K-Y lubricant.

Skidmore said to me, "I'll just be doing more of the same. Why don't you go with Tipu?"

DEPENDING on your point of view, the dromedary camel is either the most improbable of animals or the only possible animal under the circumstances. Its split upper lip allows it to remove acacia leaves from among the spiky thorns -- and yet its sharp teeth allow it to masticate thorny plants if it must. To shut out the blowing sand it has two sets of eyelashes, and nostrils that close tight. It can go for more than two weeks without drinking water, and when it does drink, it can tolerate salts and poisons that would kill a human being. The hump is not, of course, a water tank, as children sometimes think, though it does store a supply of fats that can be drawn down over time. What makes the camel resistant to heat and dehydration is its curious and still somewhat mystifying metabolism, which includes a thermal regulator that permits variations in body temperature of as much as eleven degrees in the course of a day. A camel filters out toxins so relentlessly and conserves water so stingily that it urinates only very small amounts. Arduous conditions may cause a camel's body mass to drop by 25 percent in a week -- a decline that would prove fatal in other mammals. When water again becomes available, camels can drink an amount equal to a third of their weight in ten minutes. Oddly, this animal, so well adapted to places without water, is a more adept natural swimmer than the horse.

Sexually, the camel is decidedly out of the ordinary, as research by Skidmore and others has made clear. The editors of the Proceedings of the First International Camel Conference, themselves well adapted to dry conditions, address the subject with nearly imperceptible whimsy. They observe, "Aspects of the reproductive mechanism appear to have been borrowed from many different genera such that it represents a strange 'hotch potch' of ideas and systems when viewed through the blinkered spectacles of the modern reproductive physiologist."

The female camel has an uneven uterus -- it ovulates from both of the organ's horns but implants only in the left one. Like the female ferret and the female cat, the female camel is an "induced ovulator" -- under natural conditions she will not actually release an egg until prompted to do so by the stimulus of mating. Male camels have their own peculiarities. A stallion can't bring himself to ejaculate in the vagina -- he must be able to penetrate the very tight cervix. Hence the importance of Tipu's special foam-rubber lining. Perhaps owing to all the extra effort, male camels don't have the libido one might expect. Even at the height of the season they don't go around mating with everything in sight.

Lulu Skidmore came to camel research through her connection with the Equine Fertility Unit, a veterinary research facility in Newmarket, England, funded primarily by the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association. This is also, in a way, how Sheikh Mohammed came to camel research. The town of Newmarket, which lies about fifteen miles east of Cambridge, in Suffolk, has been the center of British racing since the days of Charles II. Its undulating heath supports scores of stud farms and pastures of the richest green, set off by tendrils of white fencing. An even brighter shade of green, in the distance, draws attention to the roof of Tattersalls', the bloodstock auction house. Around Newmarket everyone seems to have muddy boots and clear complexions, and a windswept flush on the cheeks. The racetrack at Newmarket Heath lies within the largest cultivated grassland in Europe; running right across the course are the remnants of the Devil's Ditch, a defensive earthenwork dating from early medieval times. This is what Lulu Skidmore's ancestors were building when Sheikh Mohammed's were inventing algebra.

As the Maktoum family moved heavily into horse racing, Sheikh Mohammed began buying stud farms in the Newmarket area. He now owns nine of them, including Dalham Hall, Hadrian, Rutland, Sommeries, and Dunchurch Lodge. With the Newmarket domains came proximity to the world of equine science, and specifically to the work of W. R. Allen. Allen, fifty-seven, is a professor of equine reproduction at Cambridge University and the director of the Equine Fertility Unit. The unit, which occupies 114 acres in a corner of the Duke of Sutherland's estate at Stetchworth, is devoted to studying reproductive problems in thoroughbred mares and stallions, an endeavor that frequently takes off in tangential directions. Its work is an outgrowth of the now-defunct Animal Research Station, in Cambridge, which pioneered embryo transfer in animals, and also pioneered semen freezing, embryo freezing, and embryo splitting. Known to everyone as Twink, Allen is a bluff, gregarious, straight-talking New Zealander. When I called to ask if I could come by, he consulted his calendar and said, "Monday at four for tea or Tuesday at six for gin." Strolling among the paddocks at dusk, after tea, he said matter-of-factly, "I want to be the first to clone a horse." Describing the challenge posed by the camel's cervix, he said, "Getting into it is pretty sporty."

is the author of (1998).

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

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Lulu, Queen of the Camels - 99.10 (Part Three); Volume 284, No. 4; page 72-82.