Former atom bomb test site becomes camel reserve

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BEATING swords into ploughshares is old hat, it seems. This week there is to be an international treaty to give up atomic weapons for camels.

On Wednesday, China and the UN are to sign an agreement to turn the country's Lop Nor nuclear test site into a sanctuary for the rare Bactrian camel. The unprecedented move results from three pioneering expeditions to the desolate area north of Tibet - replete with extraordinary feats of derring- do - by a group of sexagenarian explorers.

The new nature reserve - a barren and still partially unexplored tract the size of Germany - will protect 400 wild Bactrian camels, which have survived more than 40 overhead nuclear explosions only to be threatened by hunters. It is the first ever to be set up on an atomic bomb test site.

The two-humped wild Bactrians are the last representatives of the herds from which all the world's camels are descended. The one-humped dromedaries of the Middle East are believed to have evolved from them: a one hump equips them better to withstand extreme heat.

This week's agreement largely springs from a long campaign by John Hare, a retired international civil servant from Kent, who persuaded the Chinese to allow him to be the first foreigner to enter the area for 50 years. He led three expeditions into the former test site, fighting off bandits, repairing a truck with wire from an old rocket, and twice almost being stranded hundreds of miles from the nearest villages in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

There is no fresh water in the vast area, only salt springs. The camels have adapted to drinking salt water; they eat dry grass and tamarisks that grow around the springs. "There is nothing, no people, no fresh water, virtually no vegetation, no birds and almost no animals except the camels," said Mr Hare. "That's why China chose it for the tests." Some 45 atmospheric explosions are thought to have been carried out before the tests went underground. Testing stopped in 1996.

Mr Hare admits to having been a "camel wallah" for 40 years, since he was the last recruit to join the British Overseas Civil Service as an administrative officer in northern Nigeria. He used camels for transport on the fringes of the Sahara, and later renewed his acquaintance with them in northern Kenya, working for the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi.

In 1995, on his first expedition, he was the first foreigner ever to cross the Gushan Gobi desert, the desolate heartland of the camel's territory, from north to south. He took the first-ever photograph of a wild Bactrian camel with a new-born calf, deep in remote sand dunes.

Between expeditions Mr Hare lobbied for a sanctuary, set up a foundation to raise money for it and published a book, The Lost Camels of Tartary (Little, Brown). He flies out this week to the UN Environment Programme's headquarters in Nairobi for the signing of the agreement. Reflecting on his close shaves, he said: "You are lucky to be talking to me, really."