I recently spent some time living with a refugee family in the Smara refugee camp, Tindouf Province, Algeria. The family were Sahrawis, exiles from the Western Sahara Conflict, and though they had lived a mostly stationary life in Smara for perhaps forty years, they were still culturally nomads. One day, when I had been living there for a few weeks, a relative of the family turned up in a white pick-up truck with a live camel tied to the flatbed. The camel was enormous, and gave no sign of discomfort as curious children swarmed around it.

My translator and host in the refugee camp was a spectacularly patient man called Zorgan. He knew all about camels, and lamented to me that his 12-year-old son, Saleh, who used the internet and followed Spanish football, would never possess the same depth of knowledge. Zorgan had lived in the refugee camp for most of his life, but spent as much time as possible out in the desert with his livestock. The culture was changing; it was not clear whether Saleh would one day do the same.

While Saleh petted the camel, Zorgan’s brother-in-law answered my questions. The camel had been bought from a friend in a neighbouring refugee camp for around €600, a reasonable price for a camel of quality (a ‘trash camel’, Zorgan told me, might cost as little as €300). The plan was to kill the camel the next morning; a special camel butcher had been engaged. Living anthropologically with my refugee family, I was reluctant to interfere, but, seeing the camel sitting stoically in the flatbed, I did not want it to die, and I did not want to watch.

In the morning, Saleh and I sat in the back of Zorgan’s Land Rover as he drove a little way out of the camp to where the camel had been left. It screamed horribly as half a dozen men wrestled it to the ground. Its front legs were tied so it couldn’t stand up, and a rope was hooked into its lower jaw and then tied back against the hump. It could now make only a muffled braying, but swayed back and forth, eyes wide with rage and terror. The camel butcher, a laconic young man, walked up and slit its throat with a stroke of his curved knife. The camel’s eyes opened even wider and the tenor of its braying changed. Blood sprayed out of its neck and splattered onto the sand. Looking away, I could still hear the splatter. The camel struggled briefly, then seemed to grow tired and give up.

As soon as it was dead, the butcher set about cutting it up. As a technical feat, this was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. In a remarkably short space of time the meat had been divided among the assembled Sahrawis, the useless parts discarded, and the liver extracted, to be eaten (partly) raw and warm. The camel had been pregnant; the foetus was tossed aside along with the grass-filled stomach and inedible legs. The meat was packed into Land Rovers, and the men drove away. Zorgan, Saleh and I were the last to leave. We gave the butcher a ride back to the camp; he had another camel to attend to before the market opened.

The camel had died horribly, but – until the end – the life of a semi-domesticated Sahrawi camel is in many ways similar to that of its wild relatives, except that it will never be allowed to starve. Sahrawi camels are frequently left to wander the desert unsupervised or with a single handler, unless they need to be moved to a more fertile patch of land. Camels, Zorgan explained, cannot be kept permanently in the refugee camps. Zorgan’s extended family kept a dozen or so goats and sheep in a pen on the edge of the camp, but this would not have been possible with camels. Camels need the desert.

In the West, there is something of an inversion. Some emphasis has been put on making the killing of livestock as humane as possible (think captive bolt pistols for stunning prior to slaughter), but the life of an animal bred for intensive meat production is often traumatic from start to finish, and not remotely similar to that of its wild ancestors. Given the choice, the life of a Sahrawi camel seems preferable to that of a Western cow or pig.

Once, on a long bus ride between two Saharan cities, I found myself delayed for a time because dozens of feral camels were standing in the road. The bus driver, clearly used to this, sat back in his seat to wait. The camels were the descendants of animals brought centuries ago from the Arabian Peninsula by nomads, and existed as feral herds alongside Sahrawi flocks. Zorgan told me that domestic Sahrawi camels sometimes wander off and join a group of feral camels, and feral camels are occasionally captured and brought under the jurisdiction of a nomadic family. Nothing remotely comparable ever happens – or ever could – with most Western livestock.