The Bedouins call them Ata Allah—God’s gift. But just as God gave the nomadic peoples of Saudi Arabia camels, so does he take them away. This month, 1,982 of the one-humped dromedaries have dropped dead in the Middle Eastern kingdom, a heavy blow to Bedouins, who sell the animals for thousands of dollars, and to the dairy, meat and racing industries that rely on the beasts.
Panic first struck when 232 camels fell illsymptoms included sweating, excitability, vomiting and fainting—and died within four days in the Dawasir Valley, 400 km south of the capital Riyadh, prompting worry of an infectious disease in the herd. It brought back memories of the late summer of2000, when Rift Valley fever, a zoonotic disease that causes hemorrhagic fever, spread from camels and goats to over 1,200 human cases in the kingdom, killing 87 Saudi Arabia is also on high alert for signs of avian flu, after the virus was found in a bird in the country in March.
But officials and experts have eliminated the possibility that disease is doing the killing this time. Instead, their guess is foul play. “The symptoms indicate cases of poisoning,” said Saudi Arabia’s Agriculture Minister Fahd Bilghoneim. Camel disease expert Dr. Ulrich Wernery of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai agrees: “I think it’s a toxin rather than an infectious disease. There are no infectious diseases that can kill hundreds of camels like that. It’s impossible.”
The source of the toxin, it turns out, is bad feed. The dead camels had all enjoyed a feedstock of bran that was sold to Saudi farmers by non-Saudi distributors. Officials are now eyeing these expatriate third parties as the potential poisoners. So that no Saudi shall feel the sting of loss, King Abdullah has promised compensation for every dead camel. As a result, the bereaved from Riyadh to Mecca are letting the carcasses rot in the sun, afraid to bury them until they get their due. M
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