Israeli professor: Camel milk can help prevent African famine

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JERUSALEM — Yasmin the camel is shoving her muzzle at my outstretched microphone. She has the longest eyelashes I've ever seen, which she flaps furiously at me while she gurgles and roars.

"Yasmin, there, there, pretty one," murmurs Reuven Yagil, a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev physiology professor, as I try to record the camel sounds.

"And this is Anita. She's due to give birth soon. Watch it, she'll eat your mike!"

Yagil unashamedly adores camels. And judging by the nuzzles the female members of his experimental herd are giving him, the feeling is mutual.

Yagil, who is also a veterinary scientist, came to Israel from South Africa in 1955 and has been experimenting with camels for more than two decades. He recently began an experimental camel farm in Sapir Park, in the center of the Arava. The farm is supported by the Jewish Agency and ICA, a European fund for projects in Israel.

Probably the world's foremost expert on dromedaries — one-humped domesticated camels — Yagil is convinced that camels and their milk could provide at least a stopgap solution to famine in drought-stricken areas of Africa. One female camel can supply milk for 40 children daily.

But, laments Yagil, the camel is still greatly undervalued.

The camel was the first animal to be domesticated for milk, centuries before cows. It is the only milk-bearing animal that thrives in extremely arid regions and produces huge amounts of milk — some 5.2 gallons a day — even during droughts. In Kenya and other sub-Saharan areas, most of the cattle have died because of prolonged droughts, but camels survive.

And nomadic tribes, or pastoralists, that keep camels usually survive times of disease and famine because they can subsist on camel's milk.

Since drought areas are inevitably also areas where there are millions of camels, he asks, why fly in food from abroad during famines, when the solution is right there — with an estimated surplus of 65,000 gallons of camel's milk per day?

"There's such a lot of surplus camel milk in these areas that there's enough to supply good healthy food for the kids. It's better than flying in food that most of the kids cannot digest."

It was while Yagil was running courses in Africa on the proper breeding of camels that he hit on the idea of setting up camel-milking farms. The idea is to get the nomads to bring the milk to camel farms that would serve as milking and distribution stations.

And, suggests Yagil, the camels can be fed fodder that can be grown easily in areas under permanent drought conditions — "sabra" cactus, acacias, salt bush — all of which camels like. "You can feed them fodder that will also earn income: If it's cacti they can sell the fruit. If it's peanut hay they can sell the peanuts."

Local experts in Africa were skeptical at first. "Nomads are here today and [30 miles] away tomorrow," they argued. "How are you going to get them to bring in the milk?"

So Yagil went to the nomads themselves and asked if they would be willing to bring their milk to a certain place every day if offered one cent for every 2 1/2 gallons.

"They did a quick calculation," recalls Yagil. "A herder has 100 camels, and if he's getting five and a half gallons of milk a day per camel, and he gets a cent for every two and a half gallons, that's what an average Kenyan will earn in about six months. 'Okay,' he says. 'No problem. I'll load the milk on my camels every day. When can I start?'"

A model dairy farm for camels has now been set up in Isiolo in Kenya.

Milking a camel, however, can be quite a project.

It takes two people — one on each side — with a bucket. Since milk rushes through a camel's udder very quickly, if only one person milks, only half the available milk is recovered, and the rest is re-absorbed by the camel.

To increase efficiency in the proposed milking stations there is clearly a need for milking machines. But because of anatomical and behavioral differences, machines designed for dairy cows are unsuitable for camels.

Indeed, a camel-milking machine has been invented by a recent engineering graduate from Ben-Gurion University. The prototype is ready, but the project is still awaiting funding.

What about refrigerators to keep the milk? Yagil maintains that generators using Africa's plentiful solar energy are easy to set up. Nevertheless, even in refrigerators, camel's milk, like cows' milk, doesn't keep long. The traditional method of preserving cows' milk is by making cheese. But because camel's milk lacks a protein called casein, the cheese is inedible.

Camel's milk, however, can be made into ice cream. Yagil's team has manufactured the world's first camel's milk ice cream, which they're calling "Gama-lida" in Hebrew, a combination of gamal (camel) and glida (ice cream). In English, it's "Droma-Dairy," which is both a play on "dromedary" and darom, the Hebrew word for "south."

Because camel's milk is naturally quite sweet and low in fat, only half the amount of sugar is needed to make the ice cream, though some fat must be added.

Yagil and his assistants aren't selling Gama-lida yet. Anyway, it's not targeted for the local market since it's not kosher — the camel does not have a cloven hoof. Tourists not bothered by the problem of kashrut can taste free samples at the camel farm. Yagil figures that in the future a quart will sell for around $6 and a cone from $1.50 to $2.50.

The ice cream, for unexplained reasons, takes a long time to melt; when packed in dry ice, it can stay solid for 12 hours.

But isn't the idea of making ice cream in places like Somalia or Kenya a bit far-fetched, even nutty? Not at all, replies Yagil. "Ice cream you can keep for a year and a half. It's nutritious and easy to store."