Confusing wild camels with the well-known Bactrian domestic camel risks masking the plight of the critically endangered species, a study warns.
There are less than 950 wild camels (Camelus ferus) known to be surviving in the wild in Mongolia and China.
But there are an estimated 35 million domestic camels worldwide, including the one-humped dromedary and the two-humped Bactrian which the wild camel can be conflated with, researchers said.
The wild camel is not a feral version of the domestic Bactrian, but is a separate species close to extinction, the study led by ZSL (Zoological Society London), the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, the University of Kent and the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna said.
It warns that failing to separate the two in their names risks masking the plight of the few remaining wild camels – as there are so many domestic animals – and means they do not get the conservation attention they need.
The widely known Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) originates from one wild population, with domestication happening long after it had separated from the wild camel, the researchers say.
It is a common face on TV and a working animal in a number of countries, and there are 934 domesticated Bactrian camels living in zoos and parks across the world.
And it is likely the first animal that comes to mind when people think of a two-humped camel, and think it is safe from the risk of extinction.
That is not helped by many science references, zoos and parks using the incorrect name for the species, the study in the journal Oryx suggests.
But there are just 41 wild camels in captivity in a single institution in Mongolia and less than 1,000 remaining in the wild across Mongolia and China, the researchers said.
In Mongolian, the wild camel has always been known as different from the Bactrian, with “temee” the name for the domestic species and “khavtgai” for its wild sister species, something which was not recognised in the west until more recently, the researchers say.
They are urging anyone describing the species in English to use the accurate moniker of “wild camel” instead of “Bactrian camel”, ideally with its scientific name and where possible its indigenous name.
Lead author of the paper, Anna Jemmett, of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, said: “Using an incorrect English common name to describe a species can have implications for the conservation of that animal.
“It is important that we consider both the scientific evidence and the local cultural distinctions when using these names.
“In the case of the wild camel both the scientific evidence and local distinctions agree that it is a separate species to the Bactrian camel, yet it is still often referred to as a wild Bactrian camel- which it is not.”
ZSL senior research fellow and co-author of the study, John Ewen, said: “Saving a species is possible but challenging and certainly requires a shared understanding of their vulnerability and the urgency for action.
“This starts with something as simple as accurate naming, and this is where things have been vague for the wild camel.”