a photo discussion page by Don Roberson
All photos taken in the wild

There are six species of camels (family Camelidae) alive today but almost are are domesticated. Even this free-range Dromedary Camelus dromedarius (right) encountered in the back country of Oman belonged to someone. There are no wild dromedaries left. They have a long history as an integral part of the lifestyle of Saharan and Arabian nomadic peoples. Ninety percent (90%) of the 14 million camels in the world are domesticated dromedaries. Introduced feral dromedaries also wander the interior of Australia.

The only wild camel in the Old World is the two-humped Bactrian Camel Camelus bactrianus of the Mongolian steppes. There is a tiny wild population among the thousands of domesticated Bactrians in that remote corner of the world. Vladimir Dinets has a photo of wild Bactrian Camels on his web page.

Old World camels are famous for their humps in which they store energy-rich fats that enable them to survive for long periods without food. They can also go for months without water (up to 10 months if not working) and so can graze far from desert oases. When they do drink, though, they can tank up on 30 gallons in a very short time!

There are four cameloids in the Andes of South America but two of them are entirely domesticated: the Alpaca Lama pacos (left) and the Llama L. glama. Estimates from Macdonald (1984) were 3.7 million llamas (70% in Bolivia) and 3.3 million alpacas (91% in Peru where this shot was taken). The wild non-domesticated cameloids are the Guanaco L. gunaicoe (96% in Argentina; this is more a foothill species) and the Vicuna Vicugna vicugna (72% in Peru). Biochemical studies of these taxa suggest that they are not really four species but rather that llams are domesticated breeds of vicuna, and then alpacas are cross-bred llamas with vicunas. If so, it is rather silly to have two genera listed. Llamas and (particularly) alpacas are prized for their wool; llamas are now ranch-raised throughout the world.

Vicuanas and the domesticated llamas and alpacas mostly live in alpine grasslands high in the Andes. Wild vicuanas live in territorial groups dominated by an alpha male and joined by a harem of females and various offspring. In domesticated llamas and alpacas, non-breeding males are usually castrated. These New World cameloids can also go long periods without water; apparently the guanaco does not need to drink at all. I've not yet seen either of the wild New World cameloids, but Martin Reid has photographed them both: below are the Guanaco (left) and the Vicuna (right).

There are fossil cameloids throughout the Americas, and many more species once existed. New World species were also once much more abundant in recent historical times. There were an estimated 35-50 million guanacos in South America when the Spaniards first arrived. Today the wild populations are much reduced.

Literature: The taxonomy here follows Macdonald, D., ed. (1984) The Encyclopedia of Mammals, 1st ed. Facts on File Publ., New York. Other than personal experiences, the facts are mostly summarized from that text.

PHOTOS: The Dromedary shot was outside of Buraimi, Oman, in March 2001, and the Alpaca was up over 10,000' elevation on Abre Malaga pass, Peru, in July 1987; both are © 2002 Don Roberson; all rights reserved. The Guanaco was ~10,000', downslope from Putre, Tarapaca Province, northern Chile, November 29, 1993; the Vicuna was ~14,000', in P. N. Lauca, Tarapaca Province, northern Chile, about February 26, 1990; both of these are © 2002 Martin Reid, used with permission; all rights reserved.






Page created 24 Feb 2002; updated 4 June 2002