Camel Definition & Meaning | Description, Types& Adaptations


Scientific nameCamelus dromedarius

Order/Family: Camelidae

camel (from Latin: camelus)is an even-toed ungulate in the genus Camelus that bears distinctive fatty deposits known as “humps” on its back. Camels have long been domesticated and, as livestock, they provide food (milk and meat) and textiles (fiber and felt from hair).

Understand camels

Camels come from the most barren and harsh places on our planet. Everything in the camel is designed to trap or save moisture; even their blood cells are different in order to deal with less water. They need more salt than most animals. They are not considered ‘real ruminants’, but they have a 3-compartment stomach and do regurgitate and rechew ingested forage, and they are very efficient in getting sufficient energy even from poor feed. Their body temperature can raise up to 6oC without troubling them seriously, and is often under air temperature. They can walk 3-5 days on almost no food.

They have a very good sight, and their eyes are surrounded by long lashes to protect them against winds and sand. and 34 sharp teeth which allow them to chew almost anything. Despite that they come from dry areas, they are good swimmers. Naturally they will rest during the hot days and feed in the cooler evenings.

A camel family would normally consist of a single male, one to many females and a group of young animals. The male ensures that the cows in the family avoid contact with strangers. Even though they are attacked and eaten by lions and other predators, they were not confronted with natural predators in their original dry environment. Some have explained their calm behavior by this fact: they are patient, quite bold, calm and observing, and rarely panic. They can in some cases confront threatening animals, rather than trying to escape. They have an excellent memory, and can find their way and remember people who did not treat them well. The picture of them as ‘stubborn’ and disobedient is completely wrong – they are normally very collaborative with humans.


Common nameScientific nameDistribution
1Bactrian camelCamelus bactrianusDomesticated; Central Asia, including the historical region of Bactria.
2Dromedary / Arabian camelCamelus dromedariusDomesticated; the Middle East, Sahara Desert, and South Asia; introduced to Australia
2Wild Bactrian camelCamelus ferusRemote areas of northwest China and Mongolia


Camels in East Africa and Kenya

All camels are dromedaries or one-humped Arabian camels. Camels are used as multifunctional animals in pastoral production systems of east Africa with the general aim of producing milk, meat, blood, hides and skins, provision of transport, barter trade (sale and exchange), and social and cultural functions.

Camels have an outstanding milk production, even in harsh environments, compared with cattle and small stocks under the same harsh environmental conditions. Their lactation persists well into the dry seasons and rarely ceases even during extended dry spells. Camel’s milk is preferred to milk of other livestock species because of its taste, nutritious value, health reasons and it is perceived that camel milk prevents thirst even when walking for a long distances. Depending on the accessibility of the market, surplus camel milk is also sold for cash income by members of the communities. Meat production from camels is less important in the east African region due to low reproductive performance as compared to cattle and small stocks. Small stocks are the main source of meat to the pastoral communities, but camels are slaughtered for meat on some occasions.

Camel milk is slightly saltier than cows’ milk, three times as rich in Vitamin C and is known to be rich in iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins, and is by some recommended to HIV/AIDS patients, and may play a role in reducing diabetes and coronary heart disease. It is a natural and essential food item in areas where there is a scarcity of water and forage. There may be 200 mill. potential customers in Africa. With improved feed, water and husbandry they can yield up to 20 litres per day.

Pastoralists emphasize that camels have a better meat quality because of the nutritive value and taste. Most camels are slaughtered at home for domestic consumption and the excess meat sold through a butcher. Camels are also regarded as a source of hides and skins, which are valuable raw materials for building huts and manufacturing utensils. Additionally camels are a source of blood that is mixed with milk to form a diet component for the young warriors who are also herders. Camels also have social and cultural functions including social transactions like gifts, loans to relatives and friends and food supply at the occasion of ceremonies. Sale and exchange of camels only occurs during droughts or when pastoralists are in need of high amounts of cash, such as for paying hospital fees or school fees. These unique and strategic uses of camel and related products explain the importance of the camel in the Samburu community. Despite all the benefits associated with camel production in the pastoral areas of East Africa, camels still faces challenges in their natural environment including camel diseases, drought and predation which expose the pastoralist to risks of loosing their source of livelihood.

Organic Management

For camels there are no organic guidelines and regulation, however the organic principles should be respected, kept and practiced.

Camel breeds from East Africa

The 3 main breeds of camel found are Somali, Rendille/Gabbra and Turkana. These are kept by communities who bear the same names as those of the breed. There is a fourth breed of camel called Pakistani which was imported from Pakistan into Laikipia ranches in Kenya in the early 1990s. However, only a few pure Pakistan camels exist while crosses with Somali or Turkana breeds have since moved out of Laikipia to Samburu, East Pokot, Kajiado, Northern Tanzania, Mandera and Marsabit districts.

Following is a description of these breeds;



  • Good for milk production as it can give 3 to 5 liters in a day
  • Milking the camel three times a day guarantees even more milk
  • Lactation length is 1 to 1.5 years

Body color:

  • Cream/brown 

Mature body weight:

  • Ranges from 450 – 850 kg
  • First calving occurs between 4 – 5 years
  • Average standing height is 2 meters when mature 

Feed requirements: 

  • Heavy feeders requiring 8 to 12 hours of feeding in a day depending on feed availability
  • Are more comfortable feeding on shrubs because of their height 


  • More milk
  • Matures early


  • Cannot be reared in areas with rough terrain or rocky hillsides due to large size
  • Suffer more when feed availability is low 

Within the Somali breed are four sub-types namely Hoor, Siftarr, Aidimo and Gelab. These differ in physical, production and adaptability characteristics. While hoor is the highest milk producing sub-type, it is the least hardy. Gelab on the other hand is the smallest in body size, least milk producing but most hardy.


Milk yield:

  • 1 – 3 liters per day
  • Lactation length of 1 to 1.5 years

Body color:

  • Cream or brown

Mature body weight:

  • 300 – 550 kg 
  • First calving occurs between 5 – 6 years 
  • Average standing height is 1.8 meters 
  • Feed requirements: Less than Somali, requiring 8 – 10 hours of grazing 


  • Does better under poor pasture conditions and rough terrain 
  • Tolerate drought conditions better than Somali 


  • Lower milk yield
  • Late maturity 


Milk yield:

  • Lower than Somali and Rendille/Gabbra that is, 1 to 2.5 liters/day 
  • Lactation length of about 1 year

Body color:

  • Mainly grayish/dark

Mature body weight:

  • 250 – 500kg

First calving:

  • Occurs between 5 and 6 years of age
  • Average standing height is 1.7 meters
  • Feed requirements is less than that of Gabbra/Rendille, requiring about 7 hours of grazing


  • Most hardy of all the breeds
  • Very agile and able to climb steep lava hills because of small body size
  • Least affected under situation of feed scarcity 


  • Least milk yield
  • Matures late



  • Of all the breeds, this is the best for milk production
  • Produces 4 – 7 liters of milk daily under ranch conditions 

Body color:

  • Predominantly chocolate 
  • Mature body weight: 400 – 700 kg
  • Invariably drooping lower lip

First calving:

  • Occurs between 4-5 years of age
  • Averages standing height 1.9 meters

Feed requirements:

  • It is a heavy feeder


  • High milk yield


  • Insufficiently tested on rough terrain
  • Less hardy

Note: Across all the breeds, males are generally heavier than females

Breeding Practices

Characteristics of good breeding bull and female


  • High milk production capability among daughters
  • Fast growth rate
  • Good body conformation (tall, large body frame and well built), upright in standing, high ability to chase and mount females and
  • Adaptable to the environment (feed availability, terrain suitability etc)


  • History of producing high milk volume 
  • No history of diseases
  • Good adaptability to the environment
  • Good body conformation (slender body and large stomach)
  • Well developed and pronounced milk veins 
  • Large and well set udder with four teats
  • Good mothering ability and no history of stillbirths, abortions etc 

Recommended bull: female ratio

  • The camel keeper should maintain one dominant bull of between 6 to 12 years with one younger bull as his replacement. In some areas, breeding bulls are shared with the neighbors or even with the community.
  • However, more than one breeding bull may be required depending on the herd size
  • A bull: female ratio of 1:50 is appropriate when sufficient forage is available

Sexual maturity 

  • Females become active at 4 to 5 years of age and give birth when about 5 to 6 years old. Although sexual maturity varies with breed, it is very much dependent on management level in terms of nutrition and health. When enough good feed is available, camels develop faster and maturity will be at an earlier age.
  • Males attain sexual maturity at around 5 years but begins to serve actively at around 6 years when their canine teeth are sufficiently developed for fighting 

Breeding season

  • Camels are seasonal breeders. The breeding season coincides with the cool rainy period of the year. 
  • Release of the egg (ovulation) in females is initiated (induced) by mating. This means conception only take place during the second mating which should take place after 20 – 25 days when the heat cycle returns after the first attempt to mate.


  • Mating among camels is a violent affair and can lead to injury in females. Precautions should be taken, and they should be taken care of by physically strong people.
  • Keep the breeding bull separate from the females especially when rutting since it can physically injure the females and the calves.
  • Sometimes the female does not voluntarily sit and she is forced to do so by the male who often chases her around, biting her neck, back of the hump, and pressing her down. This may result in severe wounds to the female. It is advisable to make the female sit before bringing the male to mate with her,
  • The mating process takes about 15 minutes 
  • It is also advisable that rutting males are herded by strong, mature people since they can easily hurt children.

Pregnancy diagnosis 

  • A traditional method of telling if a camel is pregnant, is to stand near it and raise your hand, then check for the raising of the tail and passing of some urine. If it does so, this indicates pregnancy,
  • A pregnant camel will also raise her tail when a bull approaches her, 
  • The camel begins to show this sign 2 – 4 weeks after conception. 

Signs of rut in male 

  • Loss of appetite and condition
  • Unusually aggressive and difficult to handle (Chases away all the other males and even humans)
  • Frequent urination and splashing urine on the back by flicking the tail, 
  • Prolific secretion from the poll glands situated behind the ears and rubbing the secretion onto plants as a way of marking its territory
  • Protrusion of a soft palatal flap from the mouth (with air, in form of a pink balloon as shown in the picture below)
  • Making characteristic noises and continuously grinding their teeth with saliva flowing from the mouth 
  • Rutting bulls should be separated as they may fight to death

Signs of heat in female camels

  • She may become restless 
  • May show swelling of the vulva and mucous discharge
  • Frequent urination
  • Making characteristic noise
  • May have reduced milk yield
  • May sniff urine from other females
  • The heat is repeated after 20 – 25 days for females that fail to conceive

Recommended breeding practices and their advantages

1. Avoid inbreeding by:

  • Replacing the breeding bull at 12 years when its first daughters becomes sexually mature
  • Exchanging bulls with neighbors
  • Use of two or more breeding bulls


  • Minimizes congenital/inherent problems e.g. deformities
  • Enhance calf growth 
  • Reduce calf mortality

2. Use bulls younger than 13 years

  • Young bulls have high ability to follow and mount females 
  • Young bulls come to rut faster after the dry season and serve for a longer period in any given breeding season
  • Young and active bulls ensures higher conception rates of females
  • Retired bulls can be castrated and fattened for meat or other uses

3. Use females of less or equal to 6 calvings 

  • These are young females who normally have good body condition 
  • Produce more milk for the calf and humans and their calves show higher growth rate 

4. To upgrade your camels through cross breeding, look for a bull with the traits you desire

  • A bull propagates desired traits in a herd very fast as it has capacity to serve 50 dams in a breeding season. A female can only give birth to one calf at a time and it takes a long long time before you have introduced the desired traits into the herd.

Care of pregnant camels, a month before giving birth

  • Closely monitor the camels as this is the most critical stage
  • Graze the camels near settlement or boma as they may require some assistance in giving birth
  • Avoid grazing such camels in areas with pot holes, gulleys, rocky areas, slippery grounds since such camels may easily fall down and severely injure themself
  • Do not allow the camels to wallow in the soil
  • Do not put such camels in sloppy bomas as it is difficult to stand on such a ground 

Signs of labor 

  • Enlargment of the udder 
  • Sagging of the ligaments at the root of the tail 
  • Restlessness including lying down and standing up
  • Loss of appetite
  • Make characteristic noise
  • Isolating themselves from other camels 

Calving management and calf rearing

What the herder/helper* should doWhy
Separate the camel from the rest of the herd and keep it in the boma You can keep a close eye on her
Be near the camel She might need assistance
In case of difficult calving, pull out the calf gently (after washing hands and equipment thoroughly)This is to avoid damage of the uterus or injuring the calf
Make the mother lie down to ensure that the calf is not dropped while the mother is standing Dropping the calf while the mother is standing can injure the calf 
Remove birth fluids on the calf body particularly around the noseRemoving fluids from the nose and body is meant to avoid suffocation of the calf and pneumonia due to cold and possible death since camels do not lick their calves 
Treat the cut end of the umbilical cord with some iodine, strong salt solution or just tie it in a knot or with a string that is either boiled or disinfected with Dettol or Savlon These measures prevents entry of bacteria or foreign bodies which may cause secondary infection
Put the calf in front of the mother until the mother makes some low groaning noise Groaning normally indicates her acceptance of the calf
Assist the calf to suckle and if the mother refuses to suckle her calf which is especially common with first calvers, smear the mother with some birth fluids around the nostrils. If she still proves difficult, isolate and scare her so that she only see the calf around her. This helps in forcing her to accept the calf. In case of death of the mother, cover the foster mother with hide of the dead mother to enhance acceptance.Early suckling (the first 3 to 6 hours) is very important because of colostrum** which gives the calf essential immunity to infections in the first few months of life 
Note: If mother dies before two months post birth, the calf rarely survives. 
Must witness dropping of placenta although retention is very rare; can also be removed manually
Retained afterbirth in camels may lead to severe post-birth complications

It is advisable to call an experienced herder, community based animal health worker (CBAHW) or veterinarian to assist in complicated birth
The dense milk that animals produce for the first 2 to 3 days after giving birth. The antibodies in the colostrum can pass the intestinal wall and enter the blood during the first hours after birth.

Additional calving management tips If the calf has breathing difficulties soon after birth, do the following;

  • Cold water poured over the chest and head has the effect of shock and makes the calf raise and shake the head
  • Massaging with two fingers from the eyes along the nose to the nostrils clears out the mucus
  • Irritation of the nostrils with a straw makes the calf sneeze and expel the mucus
  • Turn the calf upside down (for example by putting its rear legs across your shoulder and get someone to hold them there) with its head towards the ground and massage the chest moving down towards the head

Note: Do not reach into the mouth with your fingers!! This can cause an infection and diarrhea in the calf.

Calf Rearing

Management practiceHow it should be doneWhy
Colostrum feedingAllow unlimited access of the calf to the antibodies, vitamins, proteins rich and easily digestible colostrum within the 1st 3 to 6 hours. If the dam does not produce milk, induce the let down by palpating the udder and the abdomen. In the absence of milk from the mother, feed the calf on milk from other camels. Note: Herders sometimes deny or give very little colostrum to the calves, claiming that excess colostrum causes diarrhea, especially among the second calvers . Research has shown that irregular feeding and bacterial infection causes the diarrhea and not the colostrum. Other causes includes worms and ingestion of dirtColostrum gives the calf passive immunity and washes the stomachThe quality of colostrum depreciates with timeAntibodies are proteins, and can only pass through the walls of the intestines in the first 24 hours after birth
HousingCamel calves need to be protected against cold especially at night. The pen can be made with thick and strong bushes cut from the surrounding. The pen should be swept at least once a week to avoid accumulation of ecto- parasitesOver-exposure to cold breeze can cause pneumonia and death, a strongly built pen protect calves from predators while regular cleaning helps in control of ticks
Tick controlTicks contribute significantly to the high camel calf mortality. A camel keeper should thoroughly wash young calves with acaricides e.g. triatix once in two weeks or even shorter interval depending on the tick loadTicks cause paralysis and eventual death of the calves if not controlled
Diarrhea management Note: Different camel keeping communities use different traditional methods to manage diarrhea. However, these methods are largely ineffective as evidenced by high mortality rates. Effective modern and traditional methods of managing diarrhea as explained under the ‘how’ column exist. Method 1: Rehydration of the calf using a mixture of water, table salt and sugar/honey Take three table spoonfuls of sugar or honey and one and half table spoonfuls of table salt and mix with three litres of clean water Give a soda bottle (300mls) full of this solution through the mouth on four hourly intervals until the diarrhea stops. Method 2: Traditionally eggs from chickens which interact with camels is used Give one egg by the mouth daily to a calf with diarrhea until it stopsMethod 3: Use of conventional drugs Give sulphur based drugs e.g. S-dime tablets according to manufacturer’s instructionsNote: The sick calf should continue suckling, be kept in a clean environment and separated from the healthy ones until it recovers Diarrhea contributes significantly to the 12-60% camel calf mortality levels reported among camel herds in Kenya When a calf has diarrhea, it looses a lot of water that leads to death if not replenished. The honey-table salt-water solution has rehydrating and treatment effects The eggs of chicken which interacts with camels and feed on ticks and other flies from camels have been observed to have both treatment and preventive effects on the diarrhea These measures prevents spread of the diarrhea to other calves
Calf management in the first four months of growthLet the calf run with its mother during the day for the first three months  After the third month when the calf is able to graze actively, gradually reduce the milk allowance depending on the quantity and quality of forage available and its growth performanceIn case of death of the mother or calf rejection, bottle feeding is advised This allows the calf adequate milk. Heavy milking for human consumption at this stage negatively affects calf growth rate hence delaying its reproductive and physical maturity  Early separation contribute to calf diarrhea since such a calf stays hungry the whole day and when the mother returns home in the evening, it takes a lot of milk at one suckling. The milk tends to cramp the undeveloped stomach leading to diarrhea. Letting the calf accompany its mother during the day also triggers early rumination because of early access to forage and water
Management of the non suckling calves (weaners)Gradually wean (dry) the calf from sucklingDeworm at weaning Vaccinate the weaners for trypanosomosisFeed the weaners on good quality forageGradually increase the watering interval Supplement with minerals Wash weaners for external parasites Camel keepers wean the calves at an average age of one year. Under pastoral management, calves before weaning mostly graze around and are watered at home. However, after weaning the calves join the main herd that is normally subjected to long distance foraging and watering. This abrupt change in management contributes to stress which may be disastrous to the calf. The practices outlined here minimize the stress.
  • Additional methods of managing diarrhea in camel calves (this works in some cases with cattle calves, dose may need to be increased for camel calves) 
  • Drench with Kaolin (about 2 handfuls in a soda bottle mixed with a bit of cud from the mothers mouth and filled with clean (preferably boiled and cooled) water. Drench at least twice per day until symptoms disappear. 
  • Charcoal drench: Crush charcoal very finely. Put about 2 handfuls in a soda bottle, fill clean water and shake. Drench morning and evening.
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