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Camels at a cross-roads: decline or development?

The annual Pushkar Camel Fair
The annual Pushkar Camel Fair

No livestock market anywhere compares with the annual Camel Fair on the low hills outside Pushkar in central Rajasthan, India. While one desert hill is the reserve of draught cattle and another for the distinctive Rajput horse, it is the camel - emblem of the state - that dominates: the remaining area, some 300 hectares, is covered with camels. In late November 2004 more than 50,000 camels were brought to Pushkar for sale by the Raika, the Indian caste of specialist camel breeders.

In conversation with any of the bright-turbaned Raika their main concern is access to grazing. Vast areas of traditional grazing have been lost to irrigated agriculture and, most recently, due to the ruling from the Supreme Court of India that bans all grazing animals from national wildlife reserves. Whilst welcomed by ecologists and foresters, the grazing ban is opposed by camel herders because the shrubs and forest in areas such as the Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary in Pali and Udaipur districts have, since ancient times, been the rainy season pasture for thousands of camels. "We've nowhere to graze," says one Raika elder. "Before, we could survive famine after famine, but we can't survive the Forestry Department." In coastal Gujarat the mangroves were a seasonal resource but now they are also closed to camels. In desperation in 2003, and in contravention of Raika tradition, thousands of young female camels were sold at Pushkar not for breeding but for their flesh to dealers who smuggle meat illegally out of India to Bangladesh and the Middle East.

The population of camels in India - once the third largest in the world - has halved in under a decade to 500,000, and is falling still. To many, the demise of the camel in Rajasthan is a disaster. Not just for the 200,000 people who use working camels to make a living; nor the estimated 10,000 Raika who breed them; nor the many thousands more who work with camel products such as milk, hide or hair; but as a blow to sustainable use of natural resources. "The camel is the best option you have in a drought-affected region," says Dr Ilse Koehler-Rollefson of the League for Pastoral Peoples, who has been working closely with the Raika for nearly ten years. "Camels have distinct grazing behaviour. They scatter, taking many steps in between bites, so they do not overgraze like other stock. They can survive on plants no other livestock will eat." Dr Koehler-Rollefson believes there is a lot yet to learn about camels in India. "Studies in the Sahara by a German ecologist show that vegetation actually grows back quicker when grazed by camels because it stimulates plant to grow more leaves," she says.

Adapt or die out

The Raika are understandably reluctant to change from their ancient ways but Dr Arun Srivastava, President of Lokhit Pashu-palak Sansthan (LPPS), which was set up to help the camel breeders overcome modern day health and grazing problems, feels that change is inevitable and compromise essential if the camel and the Raika are to survive. He suggests that new grazing sources should be considered, particularly grazing which makes use of the camel's ability to survive on vegetation that is salty such as that which grows along irrigation canals. "Take the Indira Gandhi irrigation canal which brings water from the Punjab into the Thar desert -and could be extended to Kutch in Gujarat: with the irrigated land either side, it cuts the desert in half and prevents camel-keepers from moving freely from one part of the state to another, as they used to," he explains. "But I seriously think that if the canal banks were planted with fodder species such as Prosopis cineraria, Acacia senegal, Acacia nilotica and Zizyphus it could become a new grazing highway that could be open for camels in just five years time." If achieved, the canal could provide much-needed extra grazing but to achieve it the Raika would have to come to a consensus and plant and manage as a group, not as individuals.

The distinctive bright-turban of the Raika camel breeders
The distinctive bright-turban of the Raika camel breeders

The relationship between camel pastoralism and agriculture needs recognition and support. Hanwant Singh Rathore, Director of LPPS, relates how local farmers eagerly invite camels onto their land. "They cannot afford chemical fertiliser so want the camel dung," he explains. "They offer the crop residue in the field and salt for the camels. They will even feed the herders. Government has to understand this relationship."

With the backing of FAO, the Ford Foundation, Misereor and the League for Pastoral People, LPPS recently held a two phase conference at their headquarters in Rajasthan's Pali district. First camel herders from throughout the state were invited for three days of discussions about the grazing crisis, and then national and international camel scientists and specialists met to share their thoughts on the way forward for India.

Will India wake up to its great desert resource?

While new uses, new products and new marketing systems for camels and camel products are being recognised, developed and promoted in other parts of the world, in India camels and those who make a living from them are pushed to the margins. Camel milk is excluded from Rajasthan's Dairy Act, which means that legally no-one can sell it. The meeting of camel herders and specialists drew up a list of suggestions for new policies on camels and called for a new era for camels in the Rajasthan economy. Bagdiram Raika, an elected representative of the camel-keepers welcomed the momentum. "Of course camel milk must be included in the law. We need better access to health services for the camels to prevent trypanosomiasis and to cure mange. We want the work of the National Research Centre on Camels to benefit the camel breeders. For this, field centres must be opened." It was also requested that sufficient pastureland be allocated for grazing, that marketing of all camel products should be improved and that the use of camel carts, as an eco-friendly source of transport, should be promoted.

There are fears that unless policies favourable to camels are adopted soon, it will be too late. After ten years working with the camel breeders of Rajasthan, Dr Koehler-Rollefson feels the camel-breeding communities are at a critical stage. The young generation is rapidly losing interest, she feels, and if the indigenous knowledge is lost it will be very difficult to revive the camel in Rajasthan.

Date published: January 2005


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