Killing a Camel

Matthew Porges

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.


  • 20 July 2017 at 2:37pm
    Joe Morison says:
    The assumption that animals are without rights, and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance, is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion in the only guarantee of morality.
    Arthur Schopenhauer

  • 21 July 2017 at 3:04am
    YosemiteSemite says:
    In the west of the United States, since the 1600s, feral horses lost first from the Spanish adventurers, then the native peoples who took up horse culture, and finally the "Anglo" ranchers, have been recaptured and reintegrated into domestic use. That cycle continues still.

  • 25 July 2017 at 5:44pm
    DrVanini says:
    Just as a matter of clinical interest, roughly how many seconds (one hopes it was only seconds) elapsed between the beginning of the cut and the end of the braying and struggling? The defenders of halal and kosher slaughtering insist that unconsciousness is instant. I am not a vet but I have given many human anaesthetics and I am doubtful. After consciousness is lost, there may be a few small movements or even - after massive blood loss - epileptic convulsions but seemingly purposeful struggling should not be seen.

    • 25 July 2017 at 7:59pm
      John Cowan says: @ DrVanini
      Poking about on the internets, the answer seems to be anywhere from 4 seconds to 20 seconds for a human, depending on posture (faster when upright) and other factors, and assuming the cut cleanly severs both carotids, and assuming the blade is sharp enough that it will not be felt very much (both of which are requirements of both halal and kosher slaughtering). I don't think this counts as dying horribly; the spectators may not like it, but the camel isn't suffering that much.

  • 3 August 2017 at 10:35am
    DrVanini says:
    Hmmm. Try cutting yourself deeply with a brand new scalpel and I think you will find it hurts a lot more than 'not very much'. If that were not the case, we would hardly bother to use local anaesthesia to remove moles or cysts. Human skin is tougher than I'd expected before I did my first operation. Camel skin must be tougher still. I think you're right about the range for humans, though part of the brain's blood supply comes from the vertebral arteries. They would only be severed if the process involved decapitation rather than slaughtering. I would still have liked to hear from the man on the spot. EEG studies in calves show responses to pain - indicative of some level of persisting awareness - for longer than 20 seconds after arterial clamping. That was mainly why I raised the issue.