Calling a Cambulance: the Desert’s Answer to Emergency Services

In developed countries, an ambulance can reach the scene of a medical emergency in a matter of minutes, with first world innovations and infrastructure saving millions of lives. But what about the isolated regions of the third world, particularly vast, arid deserts? With churning sandstorms, the defiance of seasonal drought, no road access and abject poverty, ploughing a large van armed with life support equipment to someone in need is rarely an option; medical care often cannot be delivered on time, and many people die as a result.

Some of the world’s deficiently developed nations have a lesser known solution in place: the camel ambulance, or as we call it from this point forward, the Cambulance.

Take, for instance, the bone-dry planes of the white Achro Thar desert, Pakistan, part of the enormous, lonely cross-border hinterland straddling Pakistan and India. Reputedly pristine, Achro Thar remains untouched through its absence of modern development, including lack of workable transport.

At the time of writing there is only one doctor for about 145 villages comprising 250 residents each in this white desert. Beautiful in its desolation yet vulnerable to cycles of drought and famine, the people of Achro Thar largely rely on the locally famous Cambulance of Dr. Haathi Singh.

Dr. Haathi’s Story 

After finishing school in his local village, Haathi left for Hyderabad, South India. Having very little money, he relied on the good graces of the people he met to help him survive in this huge city. He eventually managed to go to medical college in 1997. Once he graduated, he chose to go back home to lend a hand where it was needed most, instead of staying in the city.

For more than two years he worked at a maternity centre 60 miles away from the nearest city, Khipro. There he experienced the grim realities of childbirth in the desert. “We have a saying that when a woman goes into labour in Achro, arrangements for the birth of a child and the mother’s funeral go hand in hand,” he said.

After being approached by a local NGO, Dr Haathi Singh found his calling as a Cambulance driver. Although his name in Hindi and Urdu means elephant, Haathi ignored his namesake and opted for a dromedary apothecary, and no wonder – camels have the extraordinary ability to travel great distances without food or water and have been known to survive six or seven months without drinking. From 2003, Dr Haathi Singh did the desert rounds, traversing the bleached dunes to tend to the sick and critically ill.

Four years ago, Dr Singh began working at a government dispensary, which gave him a few perks such as a grant and a jeep. Reportedly, his camels are still around, but they’re now afforded the luxury of a well deserved rest and are only put to work when fuel for the Jeep is unavailable. Still, Haathi’s regional heroism has afforded him widespread respect and revered status in the Achro Thar desert.

Camel Ambulance Bizarre Culture

Humphrey saddled up in full splendor with his dromedary apothecary.

Where to Call a Cambulance

Pakistan is not the only country having animated their emergency services in this way, though. In countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, where accessibility by car is greatly hindered by the poor road and climatic conditions, the camels are now not only being used as traditional beasts of burden, but also to transport seriously ill patients to health facilities.

Kenya and Ethiopia have adapted the Cambulance model over the past fifteen years, testing camels as transporters of mini solar-powered refrigerators which form eco-friendly mobile health clinics. The Camel clinics were designed by California’s Art Centre College of Design’s Designmatters and implemented by the Nomadic Communities Trust, who seek to provide a cost-effective way to transport vaccines requiring refrigeration to isolated communities, such as Kenya’s Laikipia and Samburu districts. Men and women travelling with the camels are trained in basic healthcare, and carry with them essential survival basics such as gauze pads, antiseptic, pain killers, saline and syringes, which serve as the only emergency health aids for around 140,000 rural residents of Ethiopia.

In time, perhaps the regional infrastructure in remote areas such as these may receive the attention they so desperately deserve. But until then, when needed, unsung heroes like Dr Singh and his kind will be on call with the iconic Cambulance for generations to come.

Words: Alex Durham