By Miral Fahmy of Reuters; Al-Awir, United Arab Emirates, March 21
Deep in the Arabian desert, a new breed of animal is being born.
In the United Arab Emirates, a specialised veterinary centre is mating indigenous camels with exotic llama to produce ‘camas’ – a unique hybrid that combines the best of both animals.
British veterinary surgeon Lulu Skidmore, chief scientific officer at the Camel Research Centre (CRC), has been breeding camas for the past five years to create an animal with the sought-after coat of the llama and the endurance of the larger camel.
Skidmore’s improbable-sounding experiment, the first of its kind in the world, has had relative success. Rama, a male, was born in 1998. This month, he was joined by Kamilah, a brown and white cuddly female who resembles both her parents.
"It’s not quite as bizarre a crossing as people first imagine," Skidmore said at the desert centre in al-Awir, located some 35km north of the emirate of Dubai.
"We’re just turning the clock back," she explained.
Although they hail from East and West, camels and llamas originated from the same ancient camelid that inhabited the Rocky Mountains area of North America some 30 million years ago.
Back then, some of these primitive creatures migrated to Mongolia via Alaska and Siberia, evolving into the Bactrian two-humped camel. Others headed south to populate the Saudi Arabian peninsula, Iran and Pakistan where they became the smaller, one-humped dromedary.
More camelids went to South America’s Andes mountains, where they were domesticated by the ancient Incas into llamas.
Despite their close links, camels and llamas do not mate in the wild although they can be readily cross-bred as they have the same number of chromosomes.
At the CRC, nature gets a helping hand in the form of state-of-the-art reproduction techniques.
Since camelids only ovulate when they have intercourse, Skidmore and her two-man team first inject the llamas with a hormone called gonadotrophin to stimulate ovulation.
They then monitor the development of the llamas’ ovaries and then when the follicles are ripe, the animals are inseminated by fresh camel semen which is collected using an artificial vagina.
If the researchers are lucky, pregnancy will occur and a cama will be born around 11 months later.
Rama, the first hybrid, has a llama-like spirited disposition but he sounds and looks more like a camel. Skidmore hopes Kamilah will also grow into a creature with a good quality coat and a size somewhere between her 85kg llama mother and her 500kg camel father.
So far, the CRC has inseminated 50 llamas this way. It has also inseminated female camels with llama sperm and transferred fertilised cama embryos into female camels, one of which is pregnant now.
"The fact that we have now been able to obtain a viable hybrid between a New World camelid (llama) and an Old World camelid (camel) is very exciting," Skidmore said.
"We’re getting the best of both breeds: the fleece of the llamas is very expensive and desired by the wool industry while the strength and patience of the camel makes the cama an ideal pack animal," she added.
Camas have been likened to mules, the horse-donkey hybrid. Like mules, they are sterile.
The cama project, which is funded by Dubai’s crown prince and savvy businessman Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is not yet commercially viable but Skidmore hopes to produce enough animals in the future to make what she affectionately calls "a giant-sized carpet".
Skidmore came to Dubai 12 years ago as part of a team commissioned by the government to develop embryo transfer and artificial insemination techniques for racing camels which, like thoroughbred horses, can fetch millions of dollars in the Gulf.
Every year, she holds courses on reproduction methods for camel specialists from as far afield as Kazakhstan and Sudan, but the camas are her real passion.
When discussing the animals, Skidmore sounds like a mother talking about her children.
"Rama is quite boastful and full of himself," she says. "Kamilah, however, is a bit shy."
Like most parents, Skidmore does not know how the offspring will turn out. But the scientist in her knows that their existence is as important as their future.
"Whatever happens, we have another 30 million year-old miracle baby," she said of Kamilah. "We have the world’s only camas."
Reuters js ©21/03/02 15-36NZ