East of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, in the shadow of a huge gum tree, the elders of Al Bashareen tribe gathered around a young man to learn how the internet could help to sell their pedigree camels.
Asem Abul Qasim, 33, showed the eager septuagenarians in Abu Geira posts on his private Instagram page.
Scrolling through artful photos of the animals, accompanied by their statistics – origin, age, health records, diet, racing distance and awards – he tells the men he has a selective network of followers and brokers in the Gulf and neighbouring Egypt.
“We are dealing with freelance professional producers and picture editors and everything is being done on our closed Facebook groups, Instagram and WhatsApp,” Mr Abul Qasim told The National, while handling a camel called Thuraya, Arabic for a constellation of stars.
“We have tailored groups for every Gulf country.”
Thuraya and her companions are not reared for meat or milk, but to be sold in the Gulf to take part in races and beauty pageants.
Mr Abul Qasim sold four camels in the past 12 months. His latest sale was a 5-year-old named after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and bought by a person from Al Gharamsha tribe in Egypt’s Sinai for $70,000.
The more camels win in local races, the higher the price they can fetch. The achievements are measured by the number of swords they are awarded with after the races.
The sword is a symbol of power, dignity and pride in the Arab culture and every race is held under the auspices of a prominent figure in the area, who presents the winner with a silver or gold sword.
“Kim Jong has won 13 swords from races in Kasala, Omdurman, Sidon and Shandi,” said Mr Abul Qasim, referring to some of cities in the east and north.
An ancient trade under threat
The political crisis of Sudan’s transition to civilian rule after the removal of longtime dictator Omar Al Bashir more than two years ago, and the coronavirus pandemic, have forced Mr Abul Qasim and his tribe, Al Bashareen, to change the way they function in the lucrative camel industry.
In the four months it ruled alone after the removal of Al Bashir in April 2019, a transitional military council imposed a temporary halt to the export of racing camels to regulate the industry and crack down on smugglers.
The decision is still in effect and has badly affected the vast majority of licensed camel traders and keepers.
Compounding this issue, Covid-19 hit air travel and shipments hard. Most Sudanese airlines have been grounded for nearly two years, so young tribal men have resorted to social media and video calls to get around the ban.
“The businessmen in the Gulf usually ask camel experts to act as a go-between to see our footage, photos and negotiate the price,” Mr Abul Qasim said.
“If a deal is cut, we transport the camels by road in pickups to neighbouring countries like Egypt. Then we pay the official air shipping fees out there to ship them to the country of the customer.”
An officer at the semi-official Sudanese Camel Union said it was impossible to control the porous borders of Africa's third-largest country, and the military would not challenge the tribes anyway.
“The military wouldn't pick up a fight with the armed tribes and open a new front. It's already mired in a political crisis,” he said.
More important than food
Demand for Sudanese camels has never dropped in Arab countries.
Bred on farms that spring up mainly in the deserts of the eastern and southern states, the camels are among the fastest in the world, reaching speeds of about 64kph when they mature about the age of five or six. They retire at nine.
Arabian camels, also known as dromedaries, have only one hump that stores fat to give the camel energy when water and food are not available.
Race distances in the Arab world can range from about 4km for young camels to 10km for older animals.
Instead of human riders, robots have been used for the past decade to guide the camels, operated from four-wheel drive vehicles that follow the camels as they run.
Last year, Unesco included camel racing in the UAE and Oman on its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
“For the buyers, quality is critical as well as the reputation,” Mr Abul Qasim said.
“The camel tribes in eastern and southern Sudan are very trusted and well-respected in the market, but more importantly the foreign customers prefer our camels because they are the best in the world.”
He said Sudanese state coffers lost millions of dollars by stopping exports, as the authorities used to charge about $10,000 in shipping and transit fees for each camel.
“We have proved innovative and resilient in marketing our camels,” Mr Abul Qasim said.
“You can’t deal as such with a popular sport and legal trade that has nothing to do with politics and represents the sole source of livelihood for many tribes.
“The state is the big loser. As we have a dysfunctional government competing against one another, we won’t sit on our hands and wait for them until they sort out their political rivalries.”
Sudan has more than 107 million head of livestock, making the country dependent on it as one of the main sources of the already scarce foreign currency.
Livestock production revenue contributes more than 20 per cent of Sudan's GDP.
The tribes breeding the beasts lead a Bedouin lifestyle based on herding and seasonal agriculture. But it is not cheap to keep the animals in good shape and attractive for potential buyers.
“Camels are more important than our food,” says Othman Hassan, 61, head of the Abu Daleek Camel Racing Club.
“The foreign buyers and investors can sell our camels later for up to $1 million per camel and also produce hybrid camels thanks to our strong and great male camels.”
Camel breeding is a family business, and one Mr Hassan is working with Mr Abul Qasim to modernise.
“My first camel shipment was to Qatar in 1990,” he said. “I exported 50 camels in one plane from Khartoum airport to Doha.
“But I was unlucky as it happened few weeks before [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
“The invasion had triggered a severe economic impact on the camel industry and left us counting the cost of losses.”
Mr Abul Qasim bought a cow last year for $2,500 just to feed two camels. The daily diet of one camel includes 10 litres of milk and dates, which are rich in iron.
They also have honey at least three days a week. It costs him about $50 a day to provide for just one camel.
“We stop the milk and dates seven days before a race,” Mr Abul Qasim said. “They just eat fodder and corn.”
The camels are also subject to exercise regimens.
“Mature camels should walk twice a day; around 10 to 15km in the morning and 3km in the afternoon after eating,” Mr Abul Qasim said.
“This is the smartest animal, who knows his friend. They are never fooled by those who pretend to be your friend.”