There are three species of camel. Most people only know of the two domesticated species. These are the dromedary Camelus dromedarius, which has one hump, and the Bactrian Camelus bactrianus, which has two. A helpful way of remembering which is which is to turn the first letter of its name on its side, a D looks like one hump, a B looks like two—easy! However, the third species is slightly more confusing. The wild camel Camelus ferus also has two humps. Until fairly recently, it was thought of as either a feral Bactrian camel or the wild animal from which the Bactrian was domesticated. Recent genetic studies have shown that neither of these is true: the wild camel is actually a separate species in its own right!

Wild camel Camelus ferus at the WCPF breeding centre in Mongolia.

The wild camel is native to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia (хавтгай) and China (野骆驼). In these two countries, it is only found in four locations. In China, it inhabits the Gashun Gobi, Lop Nur and Taklamakan deserts. In Mongolia, it is restricted to the Great Gobi A Special Protected Area. The wild camel’s habitat is a place of extremes: in the harsh desert environment with limited water, mostly in the form of salt water springs, the wild camel also has to contend with summer temperatures reaching over 40 °C and winter lows of –40 °C. This challenging ecosystem has led to unique and well-adapted species—you need to be tough to survive here. But the remoteness and harshness of these habitats also means that many species living there, and the threats to them, are neither well-studied nor properly understood.

Wild camel Camelus ferus at the WCPF breeding centre in Mongolia.

In both countries that C. ferus calls home it is known locally and named as a separate species to the domestic Bactrian camel. It is known to be a more wild animal, with behavioural and morphological differences, including a smaller body, slimmer legs, smaller, pyramid shaped humps and a flat skull. This is why it got its name in Mongolia: khavtgai (хавтгай), meaning flat head.

As early as 1999, genetic research started to agree with the local knowledge, suggesting that the wild camel is distinct from the domestic Bactrian, but these preliminary genetic results were not considered robust enough to draw firm conclusions. The first reliable study to prove the wild camel is a separate species was in 2009, and since then further genetic work has shown high sequence divergence in both mitochondrial DNA and nuclear loci.

Domestic Bactrian camels Camelus bactrianus in Mongolia.

The domestic Bactrian and the wild camel shared a common ancestor nearly 0.7 million years ago. Domestication of the Bactrian occurred c. 6,000 years ago, long after the two species separated from each other. As the wild ancestors of both the domestic Bactrian and the domestic dromedary are now extinct, this makes C. ferus the last species of truly wild camel. Sadly, this genetically unique, non-domesticated species of camel is threatened with extinction.

It is currently categorized as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. In our changing world, it is becoming even more important that we better understand this creature and what threatens it. One thing that we can all do to help is make sure we use the correct names when describing this species.

Wild camel Camelus ferus at the WCPF breeding centre in Mongolia.

Despite the now abundant scientific evidence and local knowledge that shows the wild camel to be a separate species to the domestic Bactrian, the English common name widely used for C. ferus is the ‘wild Bactrian camel’. As we now know, C. ferus is not a wild Bactrian camel, but a species in its own right. We believe, therefore, that ‘Bactrian’ should not be used when describing C. ferus. Suitable English common names would be wild camel or wild two-humped camel, alongside its Indigenous names wherever possible. By continuing to use the name Bactrian to describe the wild camel we could be delaying opportunities for its conservation by masking the plight of a threatened species with the abundance of a domesticated cousin. By referring to the wild camel as Bactrian, we are suggesting that the two species are one and the same, either as a progenitor or as feral animal. This is not only scientifically incorrect, but also does not support Indigenous distinctions or hold conservation importance.

For more information on the wild camel and our work please visit wildcamels.com @wildcamels or please contact Anna at amj36@kent.ac.uk

All photos: Anna Jemmett/WCPF

The article What’s in a name? Common name misuse potentially confounds the conservation of the wild camel Camelus ferus is available open access in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.



Anna is a PhD researcher, co-supervised by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent and the Institute at Zoology, ZSL. Her research on the Critically Endangered wild camel Camelus ferus is focused on producing a population estimate and understanding the population genetics of both the captive and wild populations in Mongolia. Her research is fully funded and supported by the Wild Camel Protection Foundation.