How many houses in Spain will have a photograph in which the children of the family, perhaps now adults, appear mounted on a camel with the dunes of Maspalomas or the black landscape of Timanfaya in the background? How many houses in Germany, the Netherlands or the UK will keep the same souvenir? For the last 50 years, Canarian camels (actually, they are dromedaries, but on the islands they never received any other name than camel) have been an icon of tourism in Spain, an almost universal and unmistakable image. His future, on the other hand, is uncertain. Animal associations such as the Franz Weber Foundation have denounced the recreational exploitation of camels, taking advantage of the recent dissemination of a video in which a calf tried several times and without success to stand up with the load of two men on top, without the passengers or breeders understanding that the animal was suffering.
“I see these things with despair“, replies Paco Jiménez, the largest camel businessman on the islands and the only one who is dedicated to his breeding with scale and professional methods. “With desperation and boredom for having to be on the defensive. I don’t know how many days four of us wake up at four in the morning to take care of a sick camel. But of that work there is no video posted. It seems to me that this is a strictly ideological discussion in which much knowledge is lacking.”
What kind of knowledge? Jiménez begins by explaining that camel breeding has already changed a lot and has adapted to the moral and environmental demands of the contemporary world. “The camels of 40 years ago were used to carrying much more weight than they carry today. The same has happened with horses, which used to ride a hundred and some kilometers in a day. That, today, is imaginable.” And as for the environment, Jiménez says that his tourist exploitation operates in Maspalomas, in the south of Gran Canaria and that it has scrupulously adapted to the conservation regulations of the Dunes, a fragile and protected space by law.
The rancher also remembers the weight of the camel in the history of the archipelago. Where did these Canarian camels come from? Why did they take root on the islands? José M. Martín, a historian from Granada, investigated its history for a paper published by the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. “The origin is in 1569, in the expedition of Agustín Herrera, lord of Fuerteventura, to Barbary”, explains the historian to Paper. A bit of context: in the first years of the European colonization of the Canary Islands, the Kingdom of Castile did not rule directly in Fuerteventura or Lanzarote. The easternmost islands of the Canary Islands were manors, something like franchises from the metropolis whose owners had to make a living to start the local economy. Herrera, later the Marquis of Fuerteventura, was actually a businessman who on a couple of occasions he traveled to the African coast to capture (or rather capture) settlers for his island. In one of those incursions, Herrera also brought a handful of camels to boost agricultural production, more as an experiment than anything else. “Until then, the camel was an animal more legendary than real in European culture,” says José M. Martín.
The import was an indisputable success: for the next 400 years, camels they plowed and plowed the fields, loaded with passengers and goods, they fed the canaries with meat and milk, they gave them grease for their candles and their healing ointments and they even had a military use in defending against attacks by Dutch and English pirates. They also ate little and drank almost nothing, as their fame says, and thus they adapted to the barren land from Lanzarote and Fuerteventura and, to a lesser extent, to Gran Canaria and Tenerife. “The original African dromedary evolved and became the Canary camel, which is already another species. Shorter, with stronger legs, less fast but more resistant and capable of climbing, which was what was needed on the islands,” says José M. Martin.