For Habibe Yüksel, camel wrestling is much more than just a sport – it is her family’s legacy.
Continuing what her grandfather started 70 years ago, Yüksel’s passion for the sport has carved out a unique position as western Turkey’s only woman in a traditionally male-dominated arena.
“Camel wrestling is something that takes courage. People think that courage is only for men,” saidYüksel.
Camel wrestling features two male camels clashing in bouts that normally last about 10 minutes.
As a nearby female camel is needed to get the males in the mood, the matches are usually held during mating season, from November to March.
Not only has she made a name for herself as the only woman on Turkey’s Aegean coast officially involved in camel wrestling, but she has also won several titles with her competitive dromedaries, Efecan and Mega, over the past decade.
Away from the fighting arenas where she has achieved her fame, the 55-year-old works as an accountant, which helps pay the bills and support her family, which includes her elderly mother.
In 2009, she bought Efecan and Megaas as two young, three-year-old calves and decided to take up the sport that her grandfather had been forced to abandon in the 1970s as he could not keep up with the financial demands of breeding and feeding camels for competition.
It costs the Yüksel family between 75,000 and 100,000 lira (approximately $5,300) a year to take care of the camels, funds that come straight out of their pocket since they do not make any money from the festivals.
Today, a fighting camel can go for anywhere between 100,000 and 2 million lira.
But Yüksel feels the costs are a fair price to follow their dreams and keep part of their family’s history and their local culture alive.
The camels are fed and looked after with care throughout the spring and summer as they gear up for the season.
They’re kept indoors in stables for extended periods during the off-season, given a specific, nutrient-rich diet of barley, vetch, grapes and oats, and are not used for any kind of labour.
The wrestling camels are Tulus, which are bred specifically for competition, with most of them coming from Iran and Afghanistan.
While serious injuries or deaths are rare, some owners have been known to slaughter a defeated camel and distribute the meat to local villagers. Camel sausage is common in these regions, particularly during the festival season.
Animal rights groups in Turkey have long campaigned against the sport and what they consider the unethical treatment of the camels.
The sport is legally protected as part of Turkey’s social and cultural heritage, however, and municipalities put on the festivals and cover transportation and accommodation costs for the camels and their handlers.