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 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.

Related link:

Embryo Transfer and Artificial Insemination in the Dromedary Camel
Information about a course offered at the Camel Reproduction Center in Dubai.

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."


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

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

Illustration 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 Two); Volume 284, No. 4; page 72-82.