Life less ordinary


He has hosted baby tigers in his house, darted baboons with a blowpipe and lived 30 years among the Bedouin in the oil-rich Middle East. But it is his work pushing the boundaries of the genetic and scientific study of camels that keeps Dr Alex Tinson energised, reports Tracey Porter

Alex Tinson is living proof that castration does not always spell an end to the crown jewels.

In the late 1980s, Dr Tinson was a young vet working in private practice in the northern NSW town of Tweed Heads when he received a phone call that would alter his life. Drastically.

At the end of the line was Paddy McHugh, Australia’s best-known “camel fanatic”, who sought Dr Tinson’s help removing the testicles of six of his flock. It was an exercise that would spark not only a life-long friendship but a passion for the long-necked ungulate mammal that just a short time later would see the Sydney-born vet—who had yet to stamp his passport —shift lock, stock and barrel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to ply his trade caring for the racing camel stock of the Gulf Royal Family.

Since treading foot on Arabian soil nearly three decades ago to take on the role of chief vet for the racing camels of the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, His Royal Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, Dr Tinson and his team have selectively bred hundreds of camels in an attempt to cement the Sheikh’s place at the top of the camel-racing league table.

In addition, his pioneering work at the camel research centre in Al-Ain has claimed five ‘world-firsts’ in camel breeding: the first birth of an embryo transfer calf; the first calves from frozen embryos; the first identical twin camel calves; the first pre-sexed embryo calves; and the first reported frozen calf using frozen semen and artificial insemination.

“I am home in the company of camels,” he says. “In times of personal grief, I have retreated to the world of camels and found comfort there. Because of camels, I have gone from rags to riches, then to rags and finally back to riches again.”

Dull moments are few and far between for Dr Tinson, the Ferrari-driving camel king whose legend has piqued the interests of Hollywood execs and was fodder for a popular cartoon strip conceived and illustrated by the man himself.

Dr Tinson recently documented his first 30 years in the UAE with an autobiography,The Desert Vet, but jokes “the best stories were the ones that were left out”.

While his book details accounts of navigating his way outside the rules by throwing an eight-month-old lion into the back of his car to take it across town for an X-ray, hosting a sick baby tiger at his home or wrestling a tranquilliser dart off an adult male chimp, it also details the social and political divides he was forced to cross as one of the few Westerners to have truly immersed themselves in Middle Eastern culture.

In addition, it describes his financial ups and downs as a result of poor investments, and his subsequent return to Australia following the decision to temporarily close down the training centre.

While Dr Tinson admits he is now a “full-blown camel tragic”, his obsession with exotic creatures began many years earlier when, inspired by his microbiologist mother and industrial chemist father, he began building a menagerie of goannas, lizards and snakes.

With 20 veterinarians already in the Tinson line, he decided he would rather become a zoo vet than the domestic variety. An opportunity to work with big animals came shortly after his graduation from the University of Melbourne.

“I am home in the company of camels. In times of personal grief I have retreated to the world of camels and found comfort there.”—Dr Alex Tinson, Director of Laboratories, Department of President’s Affairs, UAE

Dr Tinson herding wild camels in WA for early tests

He scored a part-time job at the now defunct Bacchus Marsh Lion Safari Park, where visitors were encouraged to drive through large open enclosures and experience the animals close up from the safety of their cars.

But after 18 months, and with a wife and young family in tow, he needed greater stability in his professional life. So he followed the well-trodden path north to establish his own practice.

In 1988, McHugh called and proposed that Dr Tinson become the official vet for the Great Australian Race in which 69 camels and riders cover a distance of more than 3300 kilometres over three months—from Uluru to the Gold Coast.

When a personal tragedy drove Dr Tinson to slowly favour spending more time with McHugh on his farm than in his own practice, he began developing his own connection with the mammals.

“Having little or no scientific education in camels, I was coming to understand what made them such fantastic creatures. They were utterly indestructible—capable of surviving the extremes of life in the Australian desert without breaking down [and] they hardly ever suffered illnesses like other animals.”

Midway through the camel race, Dr Tinson was approached by horse trainer Heath Harris. Harris was in the employ of the Abu Dhabi ruling family to improve their racehorse stock and announced he was now on the hunt for someone to do the same for their camels.

Lured by the thought of a substantial tax-free salary, free accommodation, bonuses and free school fees, and still reeling from the loss of his baby daughter, Dr Tinson leased out his practice to another vet and headed over on a three-month probation period.

Placed in charge of 3,000 camels spread across 15 camps, he soon learnt of the role camels play in the power games of the region. Ancient tribal conflicts are now enacted via camel racing in modern-day UAE, where clan supremacy is determined by the speed of the rulers’ stock. At the time, the then crown prince Sheikh Khalifa’s camels ranked second to last out of the seven monarchies.

“His Highness wanted no less than the best veterinary and training facility for camels in the world. He wanted to revolutionise camel racing in the Gulf and he was happy to back the project, whatever the cost,” recalls Dr Tinson.

He says that almost from day one, he and his team had to monitor the health of Sheikh Khalifa’s animals closely. To assess the impact of exercise on the blood and the heart, Dr Tinson’s team applied principles they knew worked on racehorses—using stopwatches to measure time as well as building specialised treadmills for the 400kg mammals.

“[His Highness] wanted to revolutionise camel racing in the gulf and he was happy to back the project, whatever the cost.”—Dr Alex Tinson, Director of Laboratories, Department of President Affairs’s, UAE

Once the research centre was up and running, the decision was made to attempt to pioneer reproductive technology and breed from the gene pool of the Sheikh’s fastest camels. The first camel baby to be born using this technique arrived 20 years ago. She was named Sumha’s Girl, and the value of the breakthrough at the time meant the super camel was worth $1 million at birth.

On the strength of this success, Sheikh Khalifa ordered that a further $10 million be spent on establishing a special centre for researching reproductive physiology and breeding superior racing camels.

Camel racing in front of the world's tallest skyscraper

Camel racing in front of the world’s tallest skyscraper

It was to prove the home of many significant scientific breakthroughs by Dr Tinson and his team. In the process, they have improved the speed of the camel from an average of 30km/h to an average of 43km/h.

Yet despite this, Dr Tinson says they can go faster still— without the aid of performance-enhancing chemicals.

“The tracks have improved, genetics and breeding have improved, and nutrition and vitamin supplements have improved. Removing child jockeys and replacing them with the 2kg Makita-drill type robotic jockey [has also helped]. The camels just run better with a robot than they do with a child jockey.

“The ridiculous thing is we keep breaking records… the times just keep improving. They’re still a long way behind a horse which averages around 60km/h but that’s over 2km max, whereas I’ve seen camels hit over 50km/h over the last half a kilometre of an 8k race, which I find quite extraordinary.”

Dr Tinson, who remains the director of laboratories for the president and oversees a team of around 60 scientists and vets, believes the next frontier in camel reproductive medicine will be producing superior milking camels.

There’s a lot of interest in camel milk with many touting it as a wonder health food owing largely to its antibody structure.

“At the moment we’re just selecting superior milkers. One or two of them are producing up to 27L a day, which is pretty amazing for a camel. Because of the long gestation period of the camel, they only have a baby normally every two years, so if we can get 10 embryos and six pregnancies from a superior milking camel—that’s 12 years of breeding in one go. Our ultimate aim is to be able to sex semen and then sperm-inject female semen into superior breeders. You know then you’re only going to get females and that’s what you want—females for milking.”

However, Dr Tinson says this may yet be some time off owing to the thick composition of camel sperm which makes it difficult to separate. Work is now being done on ways they can liquefy it to aid this process.

Pushing the boundaries is what drives Dr Tinson and what will continue to ensure the ongoing success of his Arab operations.

“Some of my vet friends have now retired, but I don’t want to. It’s not about money; it’s just that I enjoy what I’m doing. Besides, now I am utterly comfortable in what was once a totally alien environment.”

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