GARISSA, Kenya (AlertNet) - Camel rearing is fast catching up with cattle farming as Kenya’s main source of meat as herders struggle to cope with more frequent droughts, especially in the semi-arid north.
Scientists say camels can withstand most drought situations as they are able to survive without food and water for up to three weeks. The hump of the camel stores fluids, preventing dehydration and allowing it to transport people and goods over long distances.
Cows, in contrast, require daily access to water and pasture.
Figures from the agriculture ministry show Kenya’s camel stock has been growing steadily over the years, while cattle have declined rapidly amid recurring droughts. The East African nation now has more than five million camels - the world’s fifth largest population - and seven million cattle.
“The numbers of camels have grown by more than one million over the last two years compared with heavy cattle losses as a result of drought. Camels are known to withstand drought and go without food and water for a long time - sometimes for weeks,” said Wilson Songa, Kenya’s agriculture secretary.
Two consecutive seasons of poor rainfall in the eastern Horn of Africa region have resulted in failed crops, depleted grazing and significant livestock deaths. According to the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department, livestock mortality rates are 40-60 percent in some drought-hit areas, threatening the livelihoods of their mainly pastoral populations.
The United Nations says nearly three million people in Kenya are in need of food assistance amid the worsening drought, including around half a million refugees who have crossed the border from war-torn Somalia. The northeast of Kenya is hardest-hit, but food shortages have reached crisis levels across most areas, apart from the southwest.
The current drought arrived shortly after another severe dry spell in 2008-09, before households and farmers had time to recover. Scientists disagree over whether climate change will bring more or less rain to East Africa in the future, but since 2005, the region has experienced unusually frequent droughts.
In these difficult circumstances, the Kenyan government has launched several initiatives to encourage camel rearing, such as providing loans to camel breeders to expand their herds and developing potential markets, Songa said.
“The camel industry has been growing over the years, and its importance is being felt. Kenya is among the top five camel breeding nations of the world,” he explained.
Traditionally, more attention has been paid to livestock and Kenya’s camel sector has not yet reached its full potential, he added.
These days, however, a camel breeder in northeast Kenya can make more than 630 Kenyan shillings ($7) per kilogramme of camel meat - double the price of a kilo of beef at a Nairobi butcher’s.
Hassan Mohamed, 45, a camel breeder in Kenya’s North Eastern Province who owns more than 200 camels, told AlertNet he wants to abandon livestock farming completely as it has caused him to lose a great deal of money since 2009.
“The drought at the time made me sell the animals at throw-away prices. I was desperate since I had to feed my family. A bull valued at about 40,000 Kenyan shillings ($500), I could only sell to abattoirs for 800 shillings ($10),” he said.
More than 25 of Mohamed’s cows died in the 2009 drought. “It was a setback,” he said. “I did not think at the time of concentrating on my camels which would have brought me good income like I am making at the moment. I did not hear of any camel owner making losses as they could make money by transporting residents.”
Another way of profiting from camels is to sell the meat and milk to Kenyan hospitals, where demand is high due to its health benefits for patients.
Camel meat contains less fat and more fluid than beef. And research has shown that camel milk can help keep diabetes under control, for example.
Leading scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) detected a protein similar to insulin in the milk in Kenya and Germany a few years ago. According to 2007 figures, Kenya has over 5 million diabetics.
Clinical trials carried out by KEMRI in Nairobi have also shown that tuberculosis patients enjoy a quick recovery rate after consuming camel meat and milk.
Mohamed Juma, also from North Eastern Province, said his main customers are hospitals, meat and milk processing companies, and the leather industry, which prizes the durability of camel hides. “The leather industry buys my hides regularly at reasonable prices,” he said. “I can make as much as 6,500 shillings ($71) for a fresh camel skin.”
Even when climatic conditions aren’t so tough, a camel is worth around three times more than a cow, thanks to rising demand.
POPULAR WITH TOURISTS AND LOCALS
A waiter at the five-star Almond Hotel in Garissa, who did not want to be named, said camel meat is popular with tourists. “We sometimes run out and making a new order takes about a day. Tourists from around the world come here and enjoy the sumptuous meat,” he said. On a busy day, consumption can reach around 150 kilos in the biggest hotels.
Camel meat is also in great demand among locals in Nairobi and coastal towns, including Mombasa, Malindi, Kilifi, Lamu, Bamburi and Tsavo, as well as Somalis living in Kenya.
The Kenyan Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) estimates that camel will surpass beef to become the most common type of meat eaten in the country by 2014.
Several thousand camels are slaughtered in Kenya each day to supply expanding markets, according to the agriculture ministry. The meat is also exported to other countries in East and West Africa.
Munyao Mutiso, 26, who lives in Garissa, is a fan, and buys it as part of the weekly family shop.
“I stopped buying beef. In 2008, I developed tuberculosis and doctors advised me to drink camel milk and eat the meat,” he said. “I did get medication, but the camel diet helped alongside the drugs. I did not want my wife to be a widow and my two children to be left without a father.”
Gitonga Njeru is a science journalist based in Nairobi.