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International Camel Wrestling Festival kicks off in Turkey amid animal cruelty controversy

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Camels wrestle during Turkey's largest camel wrestling festival in the Aegean town of Selcuk, Turkey
Camels wrestle during Turkey's largest camel wrestling festival in the Aegean town of Selcuk, Turkey   -   Copyright  Emrah Gurel/AP Photo
By Theo Farrant  & AP

Black-eyed Nirvana and Mr. Isa, two male camels from the western Aydin province of Turkey wearing colorful saddles, circled the grounds with their owners and then wrestled fiercely as thousands cheered.

They were competing as part of the Efes Selcuk Camel Wrestling Festival, the biggest and most prestigious festival of its kind, which celebrated its 40th run Sunday. It features 80 pairs or 160 camels.

How does camel wrestling work?

Emrah Gurel/AP Photo
Camel fighting originated among ancient Turkic tribes over 1000 years agoEmrah Gurel/AP Photo

The large wrestling grounds are a few miles away from Ephesus, the site of ancient Greek ruins.

Smaller festivals are held across Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean provinces.

The games take place during the camels’ mating season - because the males are more aggressive during this time, especially when they are barred from mating. They are primed to fight.

The scoring system is complicated for outsiders but a camel who gets its opponent to scream, flee, fall, or is able to push its embroidered saddle to the ground, wins.

A popular spectator sport

Emrah Gurel/AP Photo
The competition in Selçuk is generally known to be the most prestigious in the camel wrestling worldEmrah Gurel/AP Photo

Spectators and fans enjoyed a cold, sunny day of music, traditional dances, barbecue, with camel sausage and meat, as they imbibed “lion’s milk,” Turkey’s anise-flavored spirit raki.

The day before, camels were paraded in a beauty pageant, decked out with colorful beaded muzzles, fabrics, pompoms, bells and Turkish flags.

A jury judged them as they strutted through the town.

The controversy surrounding camel wrestling

Emrah Gurel/AP Photo
Several animal rights organisations have criticised the practiceEmrah Gurel/AP Photo

The Federation for Camel Culture and Camel Wrestling says there is no exact date for when the tradition began in Anatolia but it is thought to date back to the 19th century among competing nomadic groups.

Animals rights groups say camel wrestling should be banned and amounts to abuse.

Even though Turkey’s law for the protection of animals bans animal fights and an amendment last summer introduced financial punishments and prison sentences, it allows traditional folkloric shows without violence.

The Istanbul Bar Association criticised the law for not banning camel wrestling, saying they are violent and have no folkloric roots.

Watch the video above to see the camel wrestling