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Chinese nuclear test site turned into camel reserve

Camels at Lop Nor

From San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle

Nuke test site to camel sanctuary

London Independent
By Geoffrey Lean
Sunday, November 8, 1998

LONDON -- Beating swords into ploughshares is old hat, it seems. This week there is to be an international treaty to give up atomic weapons for camels.

On Wednesday China and the United Nations are to sign an agreement to turn China's Lop Nor nuclear test site into a sanctuary for the rare Bactrian camel. The unprecedented move results from three pioneering expeditions to the desolate area north of Tibetreplete with extraordinary feats of derringdoby a group of explorers whose average age was well above 60. The new nature reservea barren and still partially unexplored tract the size of Germanyis to be set up to protect 400 wild Bactrian camels, which have survived more than 40 overhead nuclear explosions, only to be threatened by hunters. It is the first such reserve ever to be set up on an atomic bomb test site.

The two humped wild Bactrians are thought to the last representatives of the herds from which all the world's camels are descended. The onehumped dromedaries of North Africa and the Middle East are believed to have evolved from thema single hump equips them better to withstand extreme heat.

This week's agreement largely springs from a long campaign by John Hare, a retired international civil servant from Britain, who persuaded the Chinese authorities to allow him to be the first foreigner to enter the area for half a century.

He led three expeditions into the former test site, fighting off bandits, repairing a truck with wire from an old rocket, and twice almost being stranded hundreds of miles from the nearest villages in one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

There is no fresh water in the vast area, only salt springs, and the camels have adapted to drinking salt water. They eat dry grass and tamarisks that grow around the springs.

"There is no nothing, no people, no fresh water, virtually no vegetation, no birds and almost no animals except the camels," said Hare.

At least 45 atmospheric explosions are thought to have been carried out over the area, before the tests went underground. Testing stopped completely in 1996.

Hare admits to having been a "camel wallah" for 40 years. As a colonialera member of the British Overseas Civil Service in northern Nigeria, he used camels for transportation on the fringes of the Sahara. He also employed them while working for the U.N. Environment Program in Kenya.

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