Is it okay to ride camels?

While some organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) believe that camel riding ought to be banned outright, we take the view that as long as the animals are treated well this activity can provide much-needed income in areas that are reliant on tourism. Sadly, the traditional respect and care that many owners have for their camels isnít universal. Camel rides for tourists are common in many Middle Eastern countries, and some animals are overworked as their owners look to earn as much income as they can. The problem is that in many of the countries offering these camel riding experiences, either there are no strict animal welfare laws or they are not properly enforced, leading to abuse.

If youíre travelling with a responsible tour operator they should never include a camel ride in the holiday anyway unless theyíre confident the animals are looked after properly.

Ultimately the best judge of the animalís welfare is you, as youíre the one there queuing up for the ride. In many cases, itís easy to tell if a camel is being mistreated. It may look underweight or exhausted, have obvious sores, or be straining under heavy loads. You may see it being beaten or shouted at by the owner. Obviously, if you notice anything like this, give the ride a big swerve.

Other points to keep in mind when it comes to ethical camel riding include:

    Only one adult at a time should be on a camel Does it look as though the animal has adequate food, shelter and rest? Is the owner charging a fair price? If the price seems too low then savings are being made somewhere and itís doubtful that itís the owner going without

Camels & Bedouin culture

At a ‘camel beauty pageant’ in Saudi Arabia in 2021, more than 40 animals were disqualified because they had received cosmetic enhancements including Botox injections – adding a layer of cruelty to what might previously have been regarded as a silly bit of fun.

But while this unpleasantness does highlight the fact that humans continue to mistreat animals in the name of entertainment, the concept of a beauty contest for camels does show the affection with which this beast of burden has historically been held in the Arab world. In fact, Jamaal, the Arabic word for beauty, has the same root as jml – meaning ‘camel’.

Camels are intrinsically linked with the nomadic Bedouin people who, largely settled now, rarely use the animals for anything other than tourism. But for centuries, these ‘ships of the desert’ were vital in ferrying tribes across the sands, capable of covering huge distances in extreme temperatures with little need of food or water.

In countries such as Morocco, Jordan, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, you will encounter only dromedaries (one-humped camels). Bactrian camels, which have two humps, are native to Mongolia and China’s Gobi Desert. And the humps, by the way, store fat, not water.

Does riding camels hurt them?

Riding camels doesnít hurt them, as long as they are carrying suitable loads in a proper fashion, and not being struck or kicked to make them move. Problems arise when welfare standards slip or are ignored, and money is prioritised over the animalsí health. Which, sadly, is a common issue in the tourism industry.

Camels have a reputation for being grumpy and obstinate, but often this can be a sign that theyíre not being properly cared for. If a camel is chewing its cud, on the other hand, this can indicate that it is relaxed and content.

Any animals used in tourism should be properly looked after with adequate food, water, rest and shelter, and healthcare when needed. If they become injured or too old to work they should be humanely retired and never beaten. We also believe that current animal welfare standards in many countries, where they even exist, are far too lax.

Camels at Petra

Camel rides are a popular activity at Petra in Jordan, where they can be hired outside the iconic Treasury. Here, they can be almost constantly on the move, carrying tourists around a blazing hot sun. PETA maintains a clinic at Petra that regularly treats animals such as camels and donkeys for everything from infected bites to injuries from chain halters and poorly fitted saddles to eye infections caused by the dusty environment.

Some are forced to carry heavy loads without adequate food or shelter. Others have ill-fitting saddles that can cause skin sores. They may also be beaten to force them to move faster.

Is it ethical to ride camels at Petra?

We would suggest avoiding camel rides at Petra because of the risk the animals are overworked and poorly treated. It’s easy enough to get around on foot, and while selling camel rides helps local Bedouin people make a living, there are plenty of other ways to spend money in Petra and the nearby village of Umm Sayhoon, including tea shops and restaurants. You could also make a donation to SPANA, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of working animals.

If you are taking a Petra camel ride, then try to choose an animal that looks well-kept. If it appears thin, exhausted, or has sores on its body, then it is probably not being looked-after properly. You may also witness camels being hit or beaten by their owners. Report such instances to your tour operator and to the Jordan tourist board. Things are only going to change when people stand up and make a noise.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Jordan or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Are camel safaris ethical?

A camel safari, as opposed to a short camel ride, is usually a much more ethical experience, because there isn’t the pressure to maximise customers and profit that can so often lead to mistreatment.

Multi-day camel safaris in Jordan usually venture into Wadi Rum as part of a cultural tour, so you’re spending a lot more time getting the hump. Camels typically walk in a ‘caravan’ linked to a Bedouin guide with a rope. You have more opportunity to get to know your camel and its personality, and get used to its swaying movement.

The trick when riding a camel is to go loose, holding onto the wooden pommel on the saddle but otherwise rocking along with the animal’s movement. You may have stirrups but probably not, and if you’re uncomfortable, you can request an extra blanket on the saddle.

Camel safaris can be a peaceful, almost meditative, experience once you get into the rhythm, and they can give you an insight into the nomadic desert lifestyle, with guides having more time to talk. After a few hours of riding, you may find yourself forming an unspoken bond with your mount – now imagine riding it for days and days on end. It’s easy to see why Bedouin people become so attached to their camels.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Konstantinos Kaskanis] [Intro: Valdemaras D] [Does riding camels hurt them?: Alex Azabache] [Are camel safaris ethical?: mana5280]