To optimize their chances of winning camel races and competitions very popular in the Gulf, some do not hesitate to buy animals with perfect characteristics: “beauty queens” cloned by a team of scientists in Dubai. For large sums of money, wealthy clients can now afford beasts with long, sleek necks and lips that fall just right to catch the eye of jurors at camel beauty pageants.
At the Dubai Biotechnology Breeding Center, which overlooks the Emirati city’s skyscrapers, scientists look at their microscopes as dozens of cloned camels roam outside. “We have so many requests that we are unable to keep pace,” says Dr. Nisar Wani, scientific director of the center. His team works day and night to produce exact copies of the most beautiful camelids.
Between 46,000 and 92,000 euros to have the most beautiful beast
Nicknamed “desert ships” in Arabic and once used to transport goods across the Arabian Peninsula, camels hold an important place in traditional Gulf culture. “This year we have had 28 pregnancies of cloned camels (so far), and last year we had 20,” says Nisar Wani proudly. It was under his watchful eye that Injaz, the first cloned camel in the world, was born in 2009.
Twelve years later, most of Nisar Wani’s clients are willing to pay between 200,000 and 400,000 dirhams (46,000 to 92,000 euros) to boast of having the most beautiful beast during beauty pageants, where camels jiggle in Dusty racetracks in front of a panel of judges. It is also rare that a scandal involving injections of botox or other “cheating” does come to taint these competitions, which present a major stake in view of the sums awarded to the winners.
Here, it is above all the appearance that counts, explains Saud Al-Otaibi, director of a camel auction in Kuwait. “The price of a camel is fixed according to its beauty, its health and the notoriety of the breed. Some also resort to cloning to reproduce very competitive racing camels, or animals capable of producing milk in large quantities. A cloned camel can produce 35 liters of milk per day, which is seven times more than a regular camel, says Wani.
A practice denounced by animal rights groups
However, camel milk is popular in the Gulf. It rubs shoulders with cow’s milk in supermarkets and camel carpaccio can be found at the tables of certain luxury restaurants. The cloning technique consists of recovering DNA from cells of the animal that we want to clone and inserting this DNA into the ova of carrier camels. This practice, frequent in many countries, is denounced by animal rights groups. As orders for “champion” camels are pouring in to the Emirates, the only Gulf country to have dedicated cloning clinics, scientists are developing new techniques to keep up, such as “multiple ovulation”.
“In this process, we super-stimulate the champion hens (with the desired characteristics) and we mate them with the champion males”, explains Nisar Wani. “We collect the embryos from these females after seven or eight days and then insert them into quite ordinary surrogate mothers (…) Instead of producing one baby at a time in a year, we can produce several”, adds- he does. An ordinary camel can normally bear one to two cubs every two years.
Some clients resort to cloning not for aesthetics, but to “resuscitate” a cherished companion, a desire that Nisar Wani understands. Because if the birth of Injaz was the moment of his career of which he is most proud, the death of the camel was difficult to overcome. “She died this year. When we arrived in the morning, her uterus had ruptured. We did all we could to save her. It was the saddest moment (of my career), ”he says.