For many Somalis the camel is a gift from nature: source of milk and meat and hide, a beast of burden in the desert, for entertainment, and insurance in times of crisis. It is also used in agricultural work (draught).
An animal of haughty and cantankerous repute in Somalia, the camel is celebrated in songs and folklore as a symbol of status and prosperity and exchange in marriages, religious events, burials, conflict resolution and beauty shows.
In Wajir County located in North Eastern part of the country and covering an area of 56,686 km2, with an estimated population of 727,965 persons, livestock production which involves the rearing of camel and other animals underpins the economy.
Camels are important to Somali culture because one is considered wealthy or can rise in social status by the number of animals he has. Camels still produce milk during drought sating nomads who can go a month in the arid lands consuming nothing else.
According to figures from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), Kenya has approximately 3,338,757 million camels having the fourth largest camel population in the world after Chad, Somalia and Sudan.
Nationwide, Mandera leads with 1,016,970 million of the animals followed by Turkana, 832,462 and Wajir with 533,651 animals.
Kenya is the second largest producer of camel milk in the world after Somalia, having produced 876,224 tonnes of milk in 2017, according to Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
According to Yusuf Abdi Gedi, Livestock and Agriculture County Executive Committee Member (CECM), camel milk and meat are good source of nutrients especially in the arid and urban areas of Wajir County. Camel milk and meat are unique from other ruminant’s milk and meat in terms of composition as well as health effects.
“Camel milk has low cholesterol, high minerals (sodium, potassium, iron, copper, zinc and magnesium) and high vitamin C when compared to other ruminant milk. Camel milk contains various fatty acids, enzymes and protective proteins. Camel milk has potential therapeutic effects, such as antibacterial, antiviral, anti-diabetic, anti-ageing and anti-carcinogenic,” says Gedi.
Dr Antony Ngugi, Principal of Livestock Training Institute at Griftu in Wajir, which carries out research on livestock species in the county, says that the medicinal properties of camel milk can be attributed to the presence of protective proteins, which may possibly play a pivotal role for the enhancement of immune defence mechanism.
Not only camel milk, Dr Ngugi points out, but also camel meat in general, is considered a functional food for cures and also a remedy for many ailments such as seasonal fever, sciatica, shoulder pain, asthma, removing freckles and for improved sexual performance, in many cultures around the world.
Camels produce more milk of high nutritional quality and for a longer period of time than other species in an environment that may be rightly termed as hostile in terms of extreme temperature, drought and lack of pasture.
Dr Ngugi says that studies show that camel milk has insulin-like activity, regulatory and immune-modulatory functions on β-cells. It exhibits hypoglycemic effect when given as an adjunctive therapy, which might be due to the presence of insulin/insulin-like protein in it, and possesses beneficial effect in the treatment of diabetic patients. Furthermore, camel milk has been used for the treatment of food allergies and autism.
Very recently in 2016, a study reviewed the medicinal values of camel milk by focusing on the chemical composition of camel milk which reveals that camel’s milk has generally an opaque white colour and has a faint sweetish odour and sharp taste; sometimes, it can be salty.
“It’s opaque white colour is because of the fats that are finely homogenized throughout the milk, whereas the changes in taste are caused by the type of fodder and availability of drinking water. Its density ranges from 1.026 to 1.035 and the pH from 6.2 to 6.5; both are lower than those of the cow’s milk, and the maximum buffering capacity of skim milk is at pH 4.95”, explains Dr Ngugi.
Physiological stage, feeding conditions, season, physiological variations, genetic make-up and health status of the camel were reported to influence the composition of camel milk. In general, the average amount of components of camel milk is protein 3.4%; fat 3.5%; lactose 4.4%; ash 0.79%, while water covers 87%.
Various minerals such as Na, K, Ca, P, Mg, Fe, Zn, Cu and vitamins (A, E, C and B1) are present in camel milk. The values of trace minerals were significantly higher in camel milk as compared to cow’s milk. The concentration of vitamin C in camel milk is two to three times higher as compared to cow’s milk.
The low pH due to higher concentration of vitamin C stabilizes the milk and therefore it can be kept for relatively longer periods without cream layer formation. The availability of relatively higher amount of vitamin C in camel milk is of significant relevance from the nutritional point of view, as it exerts powerful antioxidant activity.
The levels of vitamin A, E and B1 were reported to be low in camel milk compared to the cow’s milk. Cow’s milk contains a carotene that lacks in camel milk, noted Dr Ngugi.
Julius Mwangi, a Livestock Production Officer, contends that camel meat is healthier because the carcass contains less fat and has lower levels of cholesterol in the fat than other meat animals and is also relatively high in polyunsaturated fatty acid in comparison to beef.
“This is an important factor in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is related to saturated fat consumption. Camel meat is also used for remedial purposes for diseases such as hyperacidity, hypertension, pneumonia and respiratory disease,” observes Mwangi, a rangeland management expert.
On the other hand, camel meat varies in composition according to breed type, age, sex, body condition and site of the carcass. Water content differs only slightly between species, while differences in the fat content are more marked Camel meat contains 70–77% moisture. It is also a good source of protein containing about 20–23%.
Camel meat, like other red meats, contains high levels of potassium followed by phosphorus, sodium, magnesium and calcium, plus smaller percentages of other trace elements. Calcium content of camel meat is higher than that of beef which may partly explain the tight structure of some cuts of camel meat.
The amino acid and inorganic mineral contents of camel meat are high compared to beef due to the lower levels of fat content in the meat of the camel, observes Mwangi.
Several epidemiological studies linked health problems such as obesity and high saturated fat and cholesterol intake to increased consumption of animal products.
This has led to a concern that total dietary fat intake should be restricted by consuming smaller portions less frequently or replacing red meat consumption with white meat. “The growing evidence of low cholesterol and fat content in camel meat could potentially support its healthiness as a better alternative to the high fat and cholesterol meats such as mutton and beef,” observes Mwangi.
By Donald Ngala