The best camels come from Kazakhstan, where crossbreeding is king

They produce shubat, a highly popular fermented milk drink which is prized for being both probiotic and alcoholic

The nation's camels come in an array of back shapes – most of them one-and-a-half-humped
The nation's camels come in an array of back shapes – most of them one-and-a-half-humped

In most of the world, camels come in two types: two-humped Bactrian and one-humped dromedary.

But nothing is so simple out in the desert of Kazakhstan, where the camels roaming about, munching shrubs, come in a dizzying array of back shapes – most of them some version of one-and-a-half-humped. This is no accidental, naturally occurring oddity.

“All the best specialists in hybridisation are in Kazakhstan,” Yuri V Gabrov, director of the Moscow Ethnographic Society and an authority on camels, says. “They are way out in front.”

Kazakhstan, a vast and sparsely populated nation in central Asia, is growing its camel herds by mating two-humped and one-humped camels, producing hybrids that are hardy to cold like Bactrian breeds, while producing copious milk like dromedaries.

Demand for the animals is driven by the improbable rise in popularity of a fermented camel milk drink known as shubat. It also stems from a push by the government to develop agriculture and diversify the economy away from oil; the Kazakh ministry of agriculture provides loans to farmers to expand the hybrid herds.

This kind of camel husbandry was widespread in preindustrial central Asia, where for centuries the most common form of hybrid, known as a “Nar camel”, was the preferred beast of burden for east-west trade with China. But the practice largely faded in the early 20th century, when Soviet authorities confiscated livestock from nomads during collectivisation.

As Kazakhstan pulled out of its post-Soviet economic slump, the camel herds also recovered. The number of camels in Kazakhstan rose to 191,000 in 2017 from 96,000 in 1999, the last year for which figures are available, according to the state statistics agency.

At the same time, hybrids became more common, giving rise to the distinctive one-and-a-half-humped animals now seen roaming Kazakhstan’s arid landscape.

“Up until a decade ago, Bactrian camels were the norm,” said a 2017 study on Kazakhstan’s camel herds, published in the Journal of Arid Land Studies. “The situation is changing.” The study found that 80 per cent of the country’s camels were hybrids.

“Now many people are keeping camels,” says Gulnara Uteniyazova, a camel milkmaid out on a recent, sweltering day, manoeuvring through her grunting, snorting herd with a pail, at a camel farm on the steppe. She says her family owns about 80 head, mostly hybrids: “It’s good business.”

Kazakh veterinarians have documented 32 types of hybrid, of which about 20 are raised commercially. The hump arrangement depends on the degree of hybridisation.

The most common hybrid is achieved by mating a Bactrian male, with its two distinct humps and a pronounced dip between them, with a female dromedary. Most other varieties are created by “back-crossing” the resulting hybrids with other two-humped males. Unlike mules, donkey-horse hybrids that are almost always sterile, the offspring of a Bactrian and dromedary pairing are fertile. The result is a great diversity out in the windswept desert.

A first-generation hybrid has a single but flattened hump. Subsequent generations have a variety of one-and-a-half humps: a single hump with two crests; two clearly articulated small humps; or one large and one small hump. The cross never results in a three-humped camel.

In another breakthrough in crossbreeding, in the 1990s scientists bred a llama – a relative of the camel – and a dromedary, resulting in a beast called the cama.

Kazakhs have taken pride in their expanding, unusual herds. Kazakhstan is “the leader in selective breeding of camels, with nothing comparable elsewhere in the world”, a business news site, In Business, wrote last autumn.

Shubat, the fermented camel milk drink, is prized for being highly probiotic, not to mention a little bit alcoholic.

“If you let the milk sit for two weeks it becomes shubat all by itself,” Uteniyazova, the milkmaid, says cheerily. The milk is said to “stand up” and become the drink as it fizzes and curdles.

For longtime shubat drinkers, determining the number of humps on the camel that produced the milk is easy, because Bactrian milk is more fatty than dromedary milk. The closer the hybrid to Bactrian, the richer the milk. Which is better is a question of taste.

“This is not so good,” complains Sakin Murabayev, a bus driver at a highway rest stop in western Kazakhstan where shubat is served, after downing a pint and wiping the milky moustache from his upper lip. He prefers, he says, milk from breeds closer to Bactrian.

To be sure, a glass of shubat of any type, with its sour tang and mysterious globs of milk fat, can be difficult for the uninitiated to get down. But it is undeniably popular in Kazakhstan, creating demand for the crossbred camel herds.

Murabayev offers advice on storing the drink. “If you leave it out, it will start to bubble and you cannot drink it,” he says.

But rather than throwing it out, this extra-ripe shubat can be blended with fresh camel milk, thus yielding more shubat after a few days. “Then you can drink it.”

© New York Times

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in