When I visited Morocco, I wasn’t surprised to see advertisements for camel riding everywhere. This is a country well known for its camel rides and tour companies offers desert treks all over the country.
Despite the mad desire to hop on the first camel I saw, I decided to do some research to make sure that riding a camel is ethical. I certainly didn’t want to invest in any form of tourism that would result in the mistreatment of animals.
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The animal tourism industry
The animal tourism business is a big market and it can be difficult to root out the bad attractions from the good. Animal exploitation takes place globally and it’s easy to find anything from elephant riding to tiger cuddling if you know where to look.
Whilst the lure of these attractions can be strong if you are an animal lover, research is vital in ensuring you make the right choices when it comes to animal tourism.
Recent years have seen big changes in this industry. Owing to the outcry from tourists, elephant attractions have completely shifted focus and now offer more ethical experiences, that don’t involve riding or shows. Although concern was growing around the welfare of elephants used in the tourism industry, it was traveller money that really forced this change.
Despite all the hype about travelling responsibly, it is not often you see the same concerns levelled at riding other animals, especially camels.
Is camel riding ethical? The debate!
Of course, the appeal of camel riding is easy to see. Not only are these animals exotic to most of us but camel riding directly reminisces of old fairytales and legends. Increasingly, camel riding has become a bucket list goal as well, with everyone trying to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram.
However, sadly things aren’t always as rosy as they seem on social media. Some camels used for tourism purposes are forced to carry tourists all day long without breaks. The impact of this is massive as many of the animals live a life of abuse and maltreatment at the very hands of those who are meant to care for them.
What is the current guidance on camel riding?
There is no black and white answer to this as many organisations and charities takes a different stance when it comes to camel riding. Animal charity PETA take a strong anti-camel riding stance but this is no surprise coming from the organisation who waged war on Pokémon for virtual animal cruelty.
Not all animal charities are following this hard-line though. Born Free and SPANA are both for camel riding, providing the animals are treated fairly and with respect. SPANA in particular work hard to achieve this, through providing free veterinary care for working animals in disadvantaged countries and also by educating the masses about the importance of animal welfare.
How can I have an ethical camel riding experience?
To ensure you are making the right decision when you choose to ride a camel, check out these tips:
Ask your hotel or Riad for recommendations of responsible tour providers
By investing in those who treat their animals well you are automatically setting a standard for others to follow. We stayed at Riad des Etoiles in Marrakech who arranged everything for the fantastic tour we did.
Check your camel looks healthy
It should not limp or look malnourished. Avoid animals that have sores on their bodies and faces.
Be wary of shepherds with questionable implements
Any camel owners who are holding sharp sticks or hooks may use them on their animals. Refuse to ride in this instance.
Avoid camels with patchy or bald skin
This is a symptom of the skin disease mange and contact with such animals should be avoided. There has been research to suggest that certain variations of mange can be passed on to humans.
Inspect any tethers or ropes
Never ride any animal that has scars or wounds from where they have been tied excessively tight.
Make sure the camel is not overburdened
Camels are strong animals and a camel of average size can carry around 150kg. To ensure the camel is not overburdened, insist on one person riding at any one time and make sure the animal isn’t overloaded with baggage.
Visual signs of cruelty
If you see suggestive wounds or the owners being abusive towards the animal, refuse to ride.
Camels should be given breaks
If you see camels being pushed from person to person, reconsider the decision to ride. Camels may be strong animals but they too need rest.
Is camel riding ethical? My verdict
From my research, I could find no proof that riding a camel is in any way dangerous for the animal or has a derogatory effect on their health. Whilst not all of the camels in the trade will be well cared for, my experience camel riding in Morocco was hugely positive.
The camels were allowed long periods of rest and there was a maximum of one person to a camel. In addition, all of the animals seemed content and well treated. We saw no aggression from the owners towards the camels and made sure to recommend the same trekking company to other travellers looking for an ethical experience.
To judge whether it is appropriate to ride, always look at the condition and treatment of the animal. If you saw a horse in the same condition and you wouldn’t ride it, you shouldn’t ride the camel either.
My experience camel riding
Camel riding was something that I had been dying to do since I was a kid and to say I was excited would be an understatement. The journey down to the Zagora desert from Marrakech was long and I spent the morning boring Tim to death as I rabbited on about camels. When we finally pulled over to see a herd of them waiting by the dusty roadside, I was nothing short of delighted.
Meeting the camels
I rushed off the bus and started to make my way towards the nearest camel. It was then I faltered, I hadn’t realised how big camels are. I gulped and looked around at everyone else, none of whom seemed to have been struck by this sudden realisation. ‘I didn’t think they would be so big,’ I whispered to Tim, who laughed. All at once, my excitement evaporated and was replaced with a sense of impending doom. Do I actually have to ride this giant?!
I edged towards a camel and tried to pluck up the courage to stroke it. I lifted my hand and immediately flinched away as the camel turned its head towards me. What if it bit me or spat in my eye? Everything I had ever heard about camels flooded into my mind as I tried to remember why on earth I had thought this was a good idea.
Up, up and away!
The camel shepherd (I don’t know if that is the proper term but you know what I mean) came over and told me to get on. Hesitantly, I squatted down and lowered myself onto the camel. By the time my bum touched the well-cushioned hump, my camel was already getting up. I was definitely not ready for this and several expletives escaped from my mouth before I had a chance to filter them.
Convinced I was going to fall off, I gripped the saddle handle so hard my knuckles turned white.
Now that my camel was standing, I felt much more relaxed. I was safer up high, away from the alien toes of the camels that would undoubtedly trample me to death if I was on the floor. I even managed to stroke the camel behind me without getting savaged; things were looking up. It was then that I heard a violent vomiting noise.
Camels are gross
I swung my head round to see which of the camels was being sick. To my horror, the camel nearest to me had what I can only describe as a large veiny sack hanging out of the side of its mouth. I looked on in disgust when without warning, the camel began to slurp up the swollen balloon.
It wasn’t long before all of the camels around me began throwing these bulbous bags out of their mouths. It turns out that I was not surrounded by a group of sick camels after all but actually a bunch of horny ones, as this grotesque ritual is, in fact, a mating call. This was the moment I realised camels are gross.
Suddenly the camels jolted into action. I lurched from side to side as my camel (that I had affectionally named Gertrude) traversed sandy hills and dips. It didn’t take long for me to realise I was sitting too far forward and my buttocks began to burn from the friction. With a long journey still to go, I gently attempted to shift my weight to lessen the trauma to my sensitive behind.
During the trek, I noticed that camels have a rather disgusting habit of peeing down their legs to keep themselves cool. Of course, this makes evolutionary sense but it still wasn’t any less gross.
It turns out Gertrude was quite a fruity camel and took every possible opportunity to force her head towards the genitals of the camel in front. I became very nervous that Gertrude was going to get peed on, and that I would have to spend the rest of the journey avoiding the steady dripping of camel urine. Luckily for me, it appeared that Gertrude’s friend had obviously not drunk too much recently.
A real pain in the ass
A half an hour later, with the novelty sightly wearing off, I became very concerned with the discomfort in my backside. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to get the measure of the damage to my buttocks, it was undoubtedly too late to do anything about it. After what felt like days, I dismounted Gertrude and spent the evening shuffling around the desert like John Wayne. Despite feeling very sore, it took a few hours for the full scale of the devastation to become apparent. Tentatively I ran my fingers over my bare bum cheeks to feel puffy blisters: the ride back was not going to be fun.
Growing up, I had always associated camel trekking with majestic journeys and exotic princes from far away lands. It turns out, the reality is much less glamorous. Camel riding is a constant battle to avoid getting peed on, thrown off or whacked by a veiny mouth sack. In spite of these rather gross traits, I had a brilliant time hanging out with the camels and would definitely recommend it to others. Just don’t forget your padded underwear!
Recommended camel riding trips
Have you been camel trekking?
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