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Which Animals Are Replacing Cattle in Parts of Africa?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 16, 2024
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For millennia, cows have been one of the most important animals in Africa, providing milk and meat along with social and economic status. They have also formed the basis for countless traditions across the continent.

Yet in recent years, cattle herders in many parts of Africa have faced extremely trying times. Unpredictable weather patterns, particularly droughts, have put once-flourishing herds at risk, endangering the lives of the people who depend on them for sustenance. The Horn of Africa felt this particularly acutely during the drought that lasted from 2020 to 2023, resulting in severely limited water supplies and grazable land. In certain parts of Kenya, around 80% of cows died as a direct consequence of the drought, yet most camels survived.

As a result, in places like Samburu County, located 240 miles (386 km) north of Nairobi, pastoralists are turning to camels as an alternative to cows. For example, in Samburu, the regional government is subsidizing the purchase of around 4,000 camels to distribute among cattle herders who lost almost everything during the drought.

Though frequently described as slightly salty, camel milk provides much of the same nutrition as cow’s milk, typically with a lower fat content and a higher mineral content. Camel milk production requires less feed and water than cow milk production, and results in fewer carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

The shift from cows to camels has been underway for decades in parts of Kenya and Ethiopia but has accelerated as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. In the past two decades, the global camel population has doubled. The reasoning for changing ancient livestock-keeping practices seems obvious: camels are better equipped to handle drought conditions than cows, not only in terms of survival but also milk production. Though cows currently outnumber camels in Africa by a ratio of 10 to 1, camels are increasingly looking like a safer and more reliable choice.

In praise of camels:

  • Camels are uniquely equipped to endure extreme temperatures with little to drink. Unlike cows, which can only survive for a couple of days without water, camels can last for two weeks.

  • Camels' capacity to survive on limited food is among the most impressive of any mammal. They can lose up to 30 percent of their body weight.

  • To stay cool, a camel’s body temperature fluctuates. They also cool off by urinating on their legs, and when relaxing, they are able to keep their undersides above the ground thanks to their tough knees.

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Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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