Bedouin breeder fixes a robot jockey on his camel before the 18th International Camel Racing festival at the Sarabium desert in Ismailia
By Amr Dalsh
ISMAILIA, Egypt (Reuters) - Remote-controlled robot jockeys lined up at a major camel racing festival in northeastern Egypt, as owners came under pressure from campaigns to stop using child riders.
Organizers fielded around 20 robots - child-sized devices with a whipping arm that can be triggered at a distance - alongside dozens of real children as part of a trial run.
"God willing, in a year, there will be no human jockeys, except for some adults for the sake of tradition," said Eid Hamdan Hassan, head of the Egyptian Camel Federation, which organized the festival in the Sarabium desert of Ismailia.
Several Gulf countries have banned child jockeys from the traditional Bedouin sport after rights groups said the youngsters were often injured and some had been abducted or sold by their families.
Owners at last week's Egyptian event said the bans had prevented them from fielding teams in Gulf festivals - and they hoped the move to robots would help them get in.
Esam el-Din Atiyah, president of the African Camel Racing Federation, which includes Egypt, acknowledged that child riders were sometimes injured. "Human rights organizations have said that this is child exploitation," he said.
He personally wanted Egypt to move to robot-only events, but the transition was costly and would take time, he added.
Young jockeys at the event - local children mostly aged 6-13 - defended the tradition and their participation.
Sayed Mohamed, 11, said children were better than robots at steering.
"The camel might lean sideways. We (the children) are better at riding leaning camels so that we can straighten its route.
"The robot works well with camels that don't tend to lean."
Around 150 camels competed in eight categories over distances from five to 15 km, cheered on by more than 1,000 spectators.
Local tribes prepare their best camels with a special diet of beans, barley, date paste and milk.
Victory raises a camel's value. "When a camel wins, you sell it for a good price - from 150,000 to 200,000 Egyptian pounds($8,700-$11,600)," said camel owner Mohamed Mostafa. "The camel that doesn't win is sold for only 10,000."
(Additional reporting by Lena Masri; writing by Aidan Lewis and Lena Masri; editing by Andrew Heavens)