Dromedary in Rajasthan and Bactrian in Ladakh seem like twins separated at birth. It is the number of humps that distinguish these camels. The one-hump camel is found in hot deserts whereas the double-humps inhabit high-altitude, cold-desert regions.

Following the closure of the silk route in 1950, few Bactrian were left in the tri-armed Nubra valley in Ladakh. At one time during the early 1980s, less than a dozen such camels were reported from the valley.

Far from becoming extinct, the numbers of the species have indeed gone up. At last count, early this year, 211 animals were found in the valley. The camel population is the largest in Hunder village, followed by Sumoor, Diskit and Tigger. According to a recent report in Current Science , the National Research Centre on Camel has observed an increasing trend in the population of double-hump camels, signalling favourably for the conservation of this rare species.

Nature has its own ways of drawing a distinction between the same species to suit varying climates. Research shows that the one-hump camel actually evolved out of the double-hump, with the extra hump disappearing due to evolutionary adaptation for hot-desert conditions.

The double-hump camel is a native of Gobi desert, and is found on a vast expanse of cold-desert areas across Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and parts of Afghanistan. Though it was a beast of burden in the olden days, advent of modern transportation in this remote cold region has reduced the animal’s utility to a tourist attraction in Nubra valley. Camel-riding is a popular activity in the sand dunes, which extend over a few-kilometre area in the valley.

This camel is of immense interest to researchers as it can withstand temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees Celsius; has high disease resistance; and very high feed conversion efficiency. What is more, the double-hump camel can propagate naturally, roaming and grazing in the range-land all year round, without any supplementary feed. Local herders in the valley have found no use for it other than as tourist attraction.

Unless its milk finds favour for human consumption, as in other countries, only its copious quantities of hair go to feed small cottage industry. Range-lands are developed for feeding the increasing population of double-hump camels, but sustaining the species on tourism alone may not hold good for long.

The writer is Director, The Eco-logical Foundation, New Delhi