Discovering camels: The agricultural gold of the drylands
By Salamula Jenipher Biira
The first time I travelled to Karamoja Region, over 400 km North East of Uganda’s capital city, the journey was a long and tiring one. However, the distance and fatigue did not compare to the level of excitement I felt at the thought of getting up-close with the “giants of the domestic” – camels.
I visited Karamoja a total of three times during my master’s research. On all these visits, I interacted with the native Karimojong, which gave me the opportunity to appreciate the rich culture of this pastoralist community.
My biggest fascination, however, was with the camels. Since they were the focus of my research, I gained vast knowledge and experience with them.
Although I had never seen camels in my life, I learned that they are widely reared in the Karamoja Region. I am glad that I have graduated from the cohort of Ugandans whose minds race to Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya whenever asked to mention any country with a large population of camels. Camels do exist in Uganda, moreover, they are thriving and offering a livelihood.
Conversations with camel and non-camel herders, alike, revealed that camels are highly valued as domestic animals because of their tremendous ability to support livelihoods and increase resilience of pastoral people to climate extremes. Most of them acknowledged the fact that camels produce a higher and consistent amount of milk and all year round, compared to other livestock.
In addition, those involved in animal trade claim that they earn more from the sale of camels than other livestock. Moreover, camel herding is considered a very cost effective venture since they have a wide choice of food, as they are both grazers and browsers, and can survive for many days, even months, without water. Sad stories of long treks with livestock in search of pasture and water during dry seasons are unheard of among camel herders.
For those unfamiliar with camels, the thought of herding such an elephantine beast might send shivers down their spines. I was one of those, and so on seeing that children in the tender age bracket of five to ten years were the main herders of these “giants”, I stood dumbfounded. The experience jolted me out of the doldrums of my ignorance.
Camels are innately suited to thrive in harsh environments characterized by sporadic rainfall patterns, low rainfall intensity, high temperatures and scarce vegetation. They can aptly be referred to as the “Kings of the desert”.
With the changing climate in Uganda, several areas, especially along the cattle corridor, are increasingly becoming desert-like. This therefore makes these areas more suitable for camels and less for other livestock.
Knowing that camels can survive harsh conditions and still produce milk in sufficient amounts throughout the year, yet are cost effective to manage, I can confidently say that they are faithful supporters of livelihoods.
It is therefore appalling that, in Uganda, a paucity of research work has been done on these desert kings. More scientific research and publications are needed to account for the importance of camels in our country, so that we can see increased adoption.
Some household heads who had benefitted from camels assured me that they would sooner die of hunger, than sell their camels. What an eerie statement, but it highlighted just how strongly the Karimojong value their livestock.
As a scientist, I desire that many get exposure to this livelihood opportunity. As a Ugandan, I believe camels are the ‘agricultural gold’ of the drylands that needs to be mined especially as we grapple with adaptation to climate change and climate variability.
I take this opportunity to thank the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) for funding my Masters studies and my supervisor, Dr. Justine Namaalwa. Special appreciation goes to the people of Karamoja for their warm reception and cooperation. I also extend my gratitude to Dr. Daniel Aleper (National Livestock Resources Research Institute) and Dr. Paul Okullo (Nabuin Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute, Moroto) for their support.
Ms Salamula Jenipher Biira is pursuing a Masters in Environment and Natural Resources at Makerere University in Uganda. Her research is part of the project investigating, “The Potential of Camel Production in Resilience Building to Climate Change in Karamoja, Uganda (CAPREC)”. The project was funded by RUFORUM under the sixth call of it Graduate Research Grants, grant number RU 2015 GRG-117