Noah Yim, in The Australian, 18 August 2022, where the title reads “Aussie mums for richest pickings of camel crop” …. while the highlighting is the hand of The Editor, Thuppahi
These mums could give birth to the Arabian Peninsula’s next top models. Wild Australian camels are highly sought after as surrogate mothers to the most prized beauty pageant and racing camels in the Middle East, courting millions of dollars from kings and sheiks in order to continue the progeny free of diseases.
Clients have included the head of the al-Sharqi dynasty, one of the six major royal houses of the United Arab Emirates.
The Ngaanyatjarra Camel Company, co-owned by the local Indigenous land council and a private venture, is at the centre of this niche trade. The land from where the wild camels are sourced straddles the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.
While the bloodlines of specialised racing or beauty pageant camels are highly protected, several diseases, including MERS and camelpox, are endemic in almost all camel populations other than Australia’s, says Ngaanyatjarra Camel Company managing director Troy Coe.
In addition, owners are hesitant to impregnate prized pageant camels, thereby making disease-free Australian surrogate female camels the perfect, albeit expensive, solution. Camel beauty pageants and racing are big business in parts of the Middle East, particularly the Arabian Peninsula.
“One of the camels Troy and I spent time with (in the United Arab Emirates) … was Nazar, and she was valued at over $10m. They take their competitions very, very seriously,” said Karen Ellis, a camel logistics professional who has worked with the Ngaanyatjarra company to export live camels.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival at the end of 2021 headlined a camel beauty pageant offering almost $100m in prize money. It was mired in scandal when more than 40 camels were disqualified for receiving Botox injections and other cosmetic enhancements. Judges verified camels with X-rays, 3D ultrasound machines and DNA tests.
Key judging criteria include long, droopy lips, a shapely hump, and a big nose.
Exporting live camels is complicated and pricey business, said Ms Ellis. Each plane-load of camels – without considering catching, housing and training fees – costs $2m. “They (when on the flight) sit on a cushion-like nappy that absorbs all liquid. The camels do confined space training and they put them in a very, very comfortable (space) – it’s better than flying as a client on Singapore Airlines.”
She said the camels also prefer to travel in “friend groups”.
Once the Australian camels arrive, they are placed in quarantine premises with remediated soil – treated to ensure it is free of disease – to all but remove the chance of infection. They are then implanted with fertilised eggs from specially bred show camels.
Ms Ellis says demand for Australian camels is high in the Middle East but the cost is prohibitive.
She said she developed a friendship through the trades, including with the UAE’s al-Sharqi patriarch, Sheik Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sharqi. “I last caught up with him when I was in India, judging a camel pageant competition in the desert. He … saw my partner, Paul, and myself. He actually hired a palace to have dinner with us. He bought out every person that was staying in the palace and set them up in other accommodations just for dinner with us.”
While the primary commercial interest in market exports is for surrogacy purposes, Ms Ellis said clients had shown interest in using camels for milk production and medical research, until trade was shut by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We did have more export jobs in the pipeline. We were about to have a shipment of camels going to New York … for blood work – for vaccines.”