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  • Writer's pictureDorien Scheets

Is it okay to ride camels?

Camel riding. Is it like riding a horse? Or something else?

A useful companion for everything from long trips across deserts to carrying goods for sale, for thousands of years (5,000 to be exact) camels have become a central part of many countries' cultures and economy. Still today, many societies use camels in much the same way their ancestors did. In others, camel riding has become a popular tourist attraction, including in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. However, the question of whether it is ethical to ride camels is a controversial one, with some arguing that it is a harmless activity that provides income to local communities, while others claim that it is cruel and exploitative. We'll explore both sides in this article. Ultimately, though, choosing whether or not to ride camels as a foreigner is a personal choice and up to you. Here, I'm going to try to equip you with the knowledge you need to make the best choice for you.

The naysayers--no to camel riding: an ode to animal welfare.

Before even hopping onto a camel's back or even booking a tour that includes it, it's important to understand the conditions under which camels are kept and used for tourism purposes. In many countries, such as Egypt and Morocco, camels are often overworked, carrying tourists for long hours in the scorching heat without proper care or rest. They may be deprived of food and water, and forced to wear heavy saddles that can cause pain and injury to their backs. Additionally, many of these camels are bred specifically for tourism purposes and are separated from their mothers at a young age, causing them emotional distress.

There are also concerns about the way camels are treated when they are not being ridden. In some countries, camels are used for transportation and are forced to carry heavy loads for long distances, often without rest or proper care. They may be beaten or whipped by their handlers, and their natural behaviors and instincts may be suppressed.

Given these concerns, many animal welfare organizations, such as Peta, and various other activists argue that it is not ethical to ride camels--period. They claim that the practice causes physical and emotional harm to the animals and that it perpetuates a culture of exploitation and abuse. In many ways, these activists and organizations would be right. These things definitely can and do happen, unfortunately. This is largely because that in many of the countries that offer these camel riding experiences, there are no real strict animal welfare laws , or they are not properly enforced, which can ultimately lead to abuse.

On my most recent visit to Morocco, I unfortunately made the mistake of participating in a camel riding experience that wasn't super ethical. After arriving there and seeing the camels, I realized that some of them definitely did not want to be ridden, evident in their wails and frustrated braying. Some of the camels were even so upset so as to bite the butt of the person on the camel just ahead of them! While actually that was quite funny, I realized later that the booty-nibbling camel was actually just trying to communicate their unhappiness. Looking back, I feel really bad about having participated in that particular camel ride. But the good news is that now that I (and you!) have greater awareness of some of the ethical issues that can come up with camel riding excursions, we can choose to make better, more informed, and responsible decisions in the future that promote camel wellness while still supporting the local community...which brings me to my next point.

But camel riding is an important part of culture and can be pretty cool!

Camel riding can be done in an ethical and sustainable way that benefits both the animals and local communities. It's no secret that many camel owners rely on tourism as their primary source of income today, and that banning camel riding altogether could have negative economic consequences for these communities who have often lived alongside camels for centuries. To deny them of their ability to rear, heard, and ride camels would be also denying them a central part of their heritage and culture. In other words, not cool.

Similarly, its important to remember that not all camel riding operations are abusive, and that we (tourists) can choose to ride with companies that prioritize animal welfare and provide adequate care for their camels.

One example of an ethical camel riding operation is the Marrakech Camel Ride in Morocco. This company is committed to providing a safe and comfortable experience for both tourists and camels, and they prioritize the well-being of their animals above all else. They limit the number of rides per day to ensure that the camels are not overworked, and they provide regular breaks and water for their animals. They also use lightweight saddles that are designed to distribute weight evenly and minimize pressure on the camel's back. Additionally, the company employs local guides and camel handlers, providing them with a stable income and supporting the local economy.

Another example is the Camel Safari in India, which provides tourists with an opportunity to experience the local culture and wildlife while also supporting conservation efforts. This company uses rescued and rehabilitated camels that are given proper care and attention, and they prioritize sustainable tourism practices that minimize their impact on the environment. They also work with local communities to raise awareness about the importance of conservation and animal welfare.

How to spot an ethical camel riding experience:

World Nomads has an awesome checklist of things to keep an eye out for when trying to discern whether the camel riding experience you're contemplating is ethical or not. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it! So here are World Nomad's recommendations for booking a sweet camel jaunt that is good for everyone involved:

  • Plan ahead: Go with tour operators that have animal welfare policies, such as World Expeditions or Intrepid Travel, says World Animal Protection, rather than opting for camel rides with hawkers outside tourist sites such as Petra in Jordan or Egypt’s Great Pyramids.

  • Question time: Ethical operators will be happy to tell you how their camels are trained and treated.

  • Deserts only: Camels evolved to survive in arid environments and should never be working in tropical, humid, non-desert landscapes.

  • Camel check: The camels should look settled and calm, says Karen Ellis. “A relaxed camel chews its cud.” Do they look healthy and well-fed? Are their eyes clear? Is their skin in good condition, with no wear spots under harnesses, saddles or halters? And if a camel has a nose-peg, look for signs of rough treatment such as bleeding or torn skin.

  • Human kindness: How do the cameleers speak to and treat the camels? Are they gentle or do they shout, whip them or yank on their reins?

  • One person, one camel: Tour operators seeking to maximize profit will often put two people on one camel. Ask to ride your own camel.

  • Ride on: Multi-day camel safaris with a leisurely pace tend to be better for camels than short out-and-back jaunts that can make for long stressful days particularly at competitive tourist sites.

  • Speak out: If you believe any camel is being mistreated, tell the tour operator, write a review on TripAdvisor and report it to an animal welfare organization such as SPANA, which helps working animals, or Animondial, a consultancy dedicated to responsible animal tourism. Tourists have power and standing up for animals creates change.

So you don't dig the camel riding thing after all. Now what?

If you're still feeling uneasy about whether or not you're comfortable with the idea of participating in camel riding, no worries! There are so many other ways to engage with your destination country or culture. Some alternative ways for you to experience local cultures might include activities such as visiting wildlife sanctuaries or engaging in eco-tourism activities that prioritize the well-being of animals and their habitats. You may also consider visiting a camel sanctuary--yes they exist and yes they seem very goovy!

To sum it up:

In conclusion, the question of whether it is ethical to ride camels is a complex one that depends on a variety of factors, including the conditions under which the camels are kept and used, the intentions and actions of the operators, and the cultural and economic context of the location. While there are certainly concerns about the welfare of camels in many tourism operations, there are also examples of companies that prioritize animal welfare and provide sustainable and ethical experiences for tourists. As responsible travelers, it's important to do our research and choose companies that align with our values and priorities. By supporting ethical camel riding operations, we can help promote positive change and ensure that animals are treated with the respect and care.

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