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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

A Llama? A Camel? It's Both

A lonely oddity named Rama has his father's legs and his mother's coat (sort of). He was created in Dubai. 'Why?' you may be asking.

July 13, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — One certainly is the loneliest number.

There isn't a single suitable partner for Rama, and there's nothing he can do about it. He's either too tall and heavy or too short and slight, depending on whom he's fixed his fancy on.

The problem is, Rama is unique. Really. He is one of a kind, a man-made creature, a beast of burden that doesn't exist naturally--in fact, would not exist at all if a bunch of scientists hadn't cooked him up in a laboratory in the desert.

He's the only male of his species: the cama. Never heard of a cama? Few people have outside this tiny land of sand, sea and oil.

The rulers of Dubai, who used their oil wealth to transform a barren sliver of land in the Persian Gulf into a modern city with lush gardens and trees, also used their money to create Rama, a cross between a camel and a llama.

Actually, Julian Skidmore created Rama. Skidmore, 38, known to everyone as Lulu, is a proper, petite Brit and the principal scientific officer at Dubai's Camel Reproduction Center.

Her creation, she's fond of saying, is not as outlandish as, say, crossing an elephant and a giraffe. After all, the camel and the llama hail from the same family tree and were one species millions of years ago.

"In theory you end up with an animal that is halfway in height between the two with a good winter coat," Skidmore says. "That would be very good."

That, at least, is the theory, which we'll get back to later.

Skidmore and her team, under the patronage of the crown prince of Dubai, tried for about a year to breed the two creatures but had difficulty until one magical day in January 1998. That's when Rama the cama entered the world at a cuddly 12 pounds.

Today, Rama looks like a llama bulked up on steroids. His legs are longer and thicker than a llama's, but he doesn't have the hump of a camel. With her cultured British accent and deadpan delivery, Skidmore describes Rama's romance problems this way:

"Rama is too big for these llamas--he squashes them. And he is too small for the camels," she says. To help cheer him up a bit, they made him a life-size love toy, though he wasn't too happy with that, either: "We built him a dummy and he doesn't like that. He took a bite out of it."

This next part may sound a bit like the old Frankenstein movie, where the doctor's monstrous creation wanted someone to love, so they built him a bride. In February, another 12-pound little miracle, Kamilah, was born, and now Rama is waiting in his air-conditioned pen for this cama tot to come of age in a few years.

"That's my baby," Skidmore says with a hint of a laugh as she points out the doe-eyed bride-to-be.

At this point, you might be wondering why Sheik Mohammed ibn Rashid al Maktum, the crown prince of Dubai and the defense minister for the United Arab Emirates, invested all this time and money (though they aren't saying exactly how much) on breeding camas. What exactly is the point?

Good question, but we'll get back to that too. First, a bit about camels, the extraordinary animals that have been inseparable from Bedouin culture for centuries. Known by some as Ata Allah ("God's gift"), they're so exalted in this community that they are even mentioned in the Koran and serve as emotional markers for a traditional way of life that has largely faded into modernity.

Bedouins "have a very long association with camels and a very special relationship," says Ahsan ul Haq, a camel veterinarian for the royal family of Dubai. "People here get more concerned when their camel gets sick than a son or daughter."

We are, of course, talking about the dromedary, or one-hump camel, which is unique to North Africa, the Persian Gulf and West Asia. The two-humped cousin, the Bactrian, can be found chiefly in Mongolia and China

Bedouins have long prized their soft-footed friends for their endurance, but also for their milk, their fur and their meat.

Though they have largely been replaced by jeeps and trucks and other modern forms of transportation, camels--one hump or two--are incredible creatures.

To begin with, there is the hump. You may think it's a big water tank. No--it's a store of fat that allows the animal to go for a long time without water or food.

Still, that's nothing in the camel's bag of tricks. Camels have a unique internal thermostat that allows their body temperature to fluctuate by only a few degrees, preventing them from overheating in the sun or getting cold at night. They have double layers of eyelashes and a nose that shuts tight, all to keep out the sand.

Still, none of this answers the question "Why?" To get closer to that, let's talk about another camel attribute: They can run. Not as fast as horses, but fast enough to race.

Camel racing is a big deal in much of the gulf. Gambling is strictly prohibited by Islam, but the sport is a hugely popular pastime and a big industry. A top racing camel can sell for as much as $1.5 million. Victory purses can range from a few hundred dollars to a brand-new Mercedes-Benz.

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