Camels by J. G. Wood

THE Bactrian camel may be at once known by the two humps upon its back, which give the animal a most singular appearance.

This species is a native of Central Asia, China, and Thibet, and is generally as useful in those countries as is the dromedary in Arabia, being employed for the saddle, for draught, and burden. It is, however, chiefly employed for the second of those purposes, and is of the greatest service to its owners.

The vehicle to which this camel is generally harnessed is a rude cart of wood, ingeniously put together, without a particle of iron, and, after the fashion of such structures, shrieking, creaking, and groaning as the wheels turn on their roughly-made and ungreased axle. The drivers, however, care nothing for the hideous and incessant noise, and probably are so accustomed to it, that they would not feel at home with a cart whose wheels moved silently. The mode of harnessing is precisely that which so simple a vehicle requires. From the front of the cart projects a pole, and to this pole are hitched a pair of camels by a yoke that passes over their shoulders. In fact, the entire harness is nothing more than a wooden yoke and a leathern strap.

In spite, however, of the rude machine to which they are attached, and the great loss of power by the friction of the badly-fitted wheels, the animals can draw very heavy weights for considerable distances. A burden of three thousand pounds’ weight is an ordinary load for a pair of camels, and a peculiarly strong yoke of these animals will draw nearly four thousand pounds’ weight. This camel is commonly yoked in pairs.

For the plough the camel is never employed, not because it is not sufficiently strong for the task, but because it does not pull with the steadiness needed to drag the ploughshare regularly through the ground.

Sometimes, however, the Bactrian camel is employed as a beast of burden, the bales being slung at each side, and the water-skins suspended below the belly. When the animal is employed for this purpose, a kind of pack-saddle is used, somewhat similar in shape to that which has already been described in the history of the one-humped camel, but necessarily modified in its structure. The owner of the camel takes great care not to overload his animal, as he is afraid of injuring the humps, and thereby detracting from the value of the camel.

The camel is laden with items, and two small children are in hanging bags on the side


In Persia the camel is employed for a very singular purpose. There was, and may be now, a corps of the army which is called the camel artillery. It consisted of a number of camels, each fitted with a peculiar saddle, which not  only accommodated the rider, but carried a swivel-gun of about one pound calibre. These weapons had a greater range than the ordinary Persian matchlocks, and, owing to the rapidity with which they could be transferred from spot to spot, formed a valuable branch of the artillery.

When the enemy saw that a detachment of the camel artillery was about to attack them, their usual device was to reach such a position as to force the camels to traverse wet and muddy ground, in which they were sure to slip about, to lose all command over their limbs, and sometimes to lame themselves completely by the hind legs slipping apart.

Camels were especially serviceable for this purpose, because they are wonderfully sure-footed when the ground is dry, almost rivalling the mule in the certainty of the tread. The Arabian camel is notable for his sure tread, but the Bactrian species is still more remarkable in this respect. Owing, in all probability, to the elongated toe, which projects beyond the foot, and forms a kind of claw, the Bactrian camel can climb mountain passes with perfect security, and in consequence of this ability is sometimes called the mountain camel.

It is as serviceable in winter as in summer. The soft, cushion-like feet, which slide about so helplessly in mud, take a firm hold of ice, and enable their owner to traverse a frozen surface with easy security. In snow, too, the Bactrian camel is equally at home; and the Calmucks would rather ride a camel than a horse in the winter, because the longer legs of the former animal enable it to wade through the deep snow, in which a horse could only plunge about without finding a foothold. No greater proof of the extreme utility of this animal can be adduced than the fact that a body of two thousand camels were employed in conducting a military train over the “snow-clad summits of the Indian Caucasus” in winter time, and that throughout the space of seven months only one camel died, having been accidentally killed.

Although the camel has so strong an objection to mud, it has none to water, and will wade across a river without hesitation. It can even swim well when the water is too deep to be forded; but it does not appear to have much power of directing its course, or of propelling itself through the water with much force. Indeed, it may rather be said to float than to swim.

In point of speed it cannot approach the Arabian dromedary, although it is little inferior to the ordinary camel of burden. About two and a half miles per hour is the average pace at which a pair of Bactrian camels will draw a load, varying in weight from three to four thousand pounds; and if they travel over a well-made road, they can do their thirty miles a day for many successive days. In countries, therefore, which are adapted to its habits, the camel is far superior to any other beast of burden, whether for draught or carriage.

One great advantage of the camel is, that its feet are so tough, that they can pass over rough and stony places without suffering, and that therefore the animal does not require the aid of shoes. In an ordinary march, the constant attention to the shoeing of horses and cattle entails great labor, much watchfulness, and often causes considerable delay, so that the peculiar formation of the camel’s foot, which neither requires nor admits of an iron shoe, is of exceeding value in a forced march. In some places a leathern shoe is fixed to the camel’s foot, but is really of little use.

Two dromedary, or Arabian, camels, one standing, the other lying down


The very worst time for the Bactrian camel is the beginning and end of winter, when frost and thaw occur alternately. At such times of the year the snow falls thickly, is partially melted in the daytime,  and at night freezes on the surface into a thin cake of ice. Through this crust the feet of the camel break, and the animal cuts its legs cruelly with the sharp edges of the broken ice.

For the cold weather itself this species of camel cares little, passing its whole time in the open air, and feeding on the grass when it is caked with the ice formed from the dew. Indeed, it bears a severe winter better than either horse, ox, or sheep, and has been observed to feed with apparent comfort when the thermometer had sunk many degrees below zero. In some places—such as the country about Lake Baikal—the camel is partially sheltered from the cold by a thick woollen cloth, which is sewn over its body; but even in such cases its owners do not trouble themselves to furnish it with food, leaving it to forage for itself among shrubs and trees of higher ground, or among the reeds and rushes that grow on marshy land and the banks of rivers.

Almost the only disease among the Bactrian camels is an affection of the tongue, which is covered with blisters, so that the poor animal cannot eat, and dies from starvation.

The fleece of the Bactrian camel ought to weigh about ten pounds, and is used for making a coarse and strong cloth. In the summer time the hair becomes loose, and is easily plucked off by hand, just as sheep used to be “rowed” before shears were employed in removing the wool. The camel in the Zoölogical Gardens may be seen in the summer time in a very ragged state, its fleece hanging in bunches in some parts of the body, while others are quite bare. The price of the wool is about six cents a pound.

The skin is used for making straps, ropes, and thongs, and is seldom tanned. It is thought to be inferior to that of the ox, and is in consequence sold at a comparatively cheap rate, an entire hide only fetching about two dollars. The milk is used for food, but is produced in very small quantities, the average yield being only half a gallon. The flesh is eaten, and when the animal is fat is tolerably tender, and is thought to resemble beef. If, however, it be in poor condition, the meat is so tough and ill-flavored, that none but hungry men, armed with good teeth, can eat it. The price of a good Bactrian camel is about fifty dollars.

The weight of a full-grown animal is about one third more than that of the average ox—that is to say, about twelve hundred pounds. The average height is seven or eight feet, and the animal generally lives about thirty-five or forty years.

Dissimilar in external appearance as are the Bactrian and Arabian camels, their skeletons are so alike, that none but a skilful anatomist can decide upon the species to which a skeleton has belonged. The legs of the Bactrian species are rather shorter in proportion than those of the Arabian animal, and in them lies the chief distinction of the two species. Indeed, many naturalists deny that there is any real difference of species, and assert that the two animals are simply two varieties of the same species.

The specimen in the Zoölogical Gardens is called “Jenny” by the keeper, and has rather a curious history, being associated with one of the great events of the present century. During the late Russian war her mother was taken from the enemy in the Crimea, and was unfortunately killed. The deserted little one ran about among the soldiers, and was adopted by the corps of Royal Engineers, who towards the end of 1856 presented her to the Zoölogical Society. Both the camels are fed upon the same diet, and eat about the same quantity.