World Biodiversity Day and Pastoralists

I am currently reading a fabulous (in the true sense of the word) book by Kelly Carew ‘Beastly. A new history of animals and us‘. In it she describes her revulsion as a child to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. The former was a farmer, the latter a shepherd and inexplicably God preferred the offering of Abel (a lamb) to those of Cain (harvested crops).

I am not a Biblical scholar, but from what I understand the name Abel is derived from ibl, the Arabic word for camel, and the name Cain was associated with metal forging and copper mining. According to one source :

The Biblical conflict between Cain and his brother Abel is an iconic story of the conflict created by the copper mining operations in the Negev. Copper was mined and smelted on site using local brushwood as fuel. The mining operations denuded the area where the Bedouin and caravan tribes grazed their goats and camels causing a conflict between the miners and the shepherding Bedouin and camel herders. The conflict is represented in the Cain and Abel saga in which Cain represented the mining interests and Abel represented Bedouin pastoralism as well as the caravan tribes in the frankincense trade.

If this interpretation is correct, then it is no wonder that God preferred the sheep- or camel herding Abel to the miner/farmer Cain. Because herding livestock is the one systematic way of food production that respects and does not structurally modify ‘God’s creation’ , i.e. the Earth’s natural biodiversity and replace it with monocultures (or sometimes polycultures). It is by far the most natural way of producing food, one whose only prerequisite is trust and good communication between humans and herd animals. It requires no fossil fuels, no pesticides or any other -cides, no fertilizer. It is a much more efficient way of protein production than factory farming and feedlotting – systems which consume more human edible protein than they generate although they are conjured up as necessary to feed the world.

As Keggie Carew eloquently and emotionally conveys in Beastly, we KNOW that industrial livestock faming serves as a n incubator for zoonotic diseases that can jump over to humans, and we also KNOW that replacing tropical rain forests with palm oil plantations and other mono-cultures exposes humans to new disease vectors. We are also realizing that the most effective way of stablizing the climate is by conserving biodiversity, and that these two environmental issues can not be disentangled.

We know all this, yet as an international community we are paralysed. We continue to pump carbon dioxide into the air, pour asphalt over the ground, and support and subsidize industrial and factory farming. Not that we are not concerned about ‘conservation’: At the last Conference of the Parties to the United Convention on Biodiversity held in Montreal in December 2022, the world agreed on conserving 30% of the earth’s land and sea through the establishment of protected areas (PAs) and other area-based conservation measures (OECMs).

Yet, this was a highly controversial target opposed by many indigenous peoples because ironically and tragically they are the ones who are prone to be affected negatively. It is in their ancestral territories that these conservation areas are likely to be established, because they most closely resemble nature.

The 30% target would be fine, if we now supported pastoralists and other indigenous peoples, to continue stewarding biodiversity. But Conservation with a big C has a bismal record with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples and it seems as if only affluent western wildlife agencies come out on top. Although ‘fortress conservation’ has become discredited, in practice it still predominates.

Look at the Raika camel and sheep/goat herders of Rajasthan – people who produce milk and meat in a humane and ethical way, while also stewarding the environment. They tolerate that leopards prey on their animals without taking retribution, ther herds support germination and regeneration of local acacia trees, while also providing organic manure. Yet these services go unrecognized and these genuine conservers of biodiversity are regarded as threat to conservation and have lost their long-standing grazing rights in places such as the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary.

No wonder few young people want to continue in this profession which combines food production wth environmental services.

Reinstating the rights of pastoralists to their ancestral territories and prioritizing them over mining and other interests would go a long way towards saving both biodiversity and limiting climate change. It would be a measure that does not cost anything and have many positive social percussions as well. But, alas, at the moment I do not know of any single country where this is happening (although I would love to be told that I am wrong). Amazingly, the story of Cain and Abel is still very relevant more than two thousand years later.

The International Year of Camelids 2024: How can it benefit camel pastoralists?

It is late March 2023, and there are no plans, as yet, for celebrating the International Year of Camelids (IYC) that the United Nations General Assembly has declared for 2024. Compare that situation with the status of preparations for the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists that will happen in 2026 and for which a large number of active regional preparatory groups have already worked out detailed activity plans, in a bottom-up initiative.

With respect to camelids – which includes the two Old World Camels (Bactrian and dromedary), as well as four New World Camelids (llama, guanaco, alpaca and vicuna) – there is no coordinated approach. Certainly, interest in, and research on, camelids has snowballed in recent years, with regular conferences happening, and camel milk being hyped for its health enhancing properties. There is an effort of some kind to ‘turn the camel into the cow’ in terms of global significance, with research focusing on camels as such, without consideration of their socio-economic and ecological context. The prime interest is in increasing yield and performance under controlled conditions; large scale dairy farms such as in the UAE, with hightech interventions including artificial inseminaton and embryo-transfer, are held up as model.

Map showing many of the camelid pastoralist groups (not complete) Available at

But such visions exclude the traditional camel pastoralists and do nothing for the continuation of their herding systems that have generated the amazing genetic diversity of camelid breeds and types adapted to local conditions. They will eventually result in the dangerous genetic uniformity that we have in the dairy cattle sector and they ignore the close human-animal relationships that are typical for camel pastoralists. If we continue on this path, camels will become cogs in the wheel of big farms where they lose their individuality and are regarded as input-output machines. And where they are cut off from their original ecological role of converting scarce and dispersed desert vegetation into animal protein, and instead fed with imported feed grown far away.

Camel herders in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

The International Year of Camelids presents an opportunity to set up a different development trajectory and avoid the errors of the cow dairy sector. Building on the traditional knowledge and ethics of camel pastoralists it provides a chance to carve out a new, cruelty-free, ecologically sound and community centered approach to dairying, on the lines that we have been pursuing through our social enterprise Camel Charisma and for which we have linked up with the startup Nomadic Nutrition. If taken up more widely, I am sure this path will benefit the planet and also appeal to the many who currently believe they have to be vegetarian or vegan in order to be good people.

My organization, the League for Pastoral Peoples, has hosted two preparatory meetings for the IYC in which people working with both dromedary camels and New World camelids have participated. More background information about the IYC is available in this presentation that I recently made at the Oxford Desert Conference.

Pastoralism at the Oxford Real Farming Conference!

Forgive me for engaging in some self-promotion, but I am incredibly excited to share that my new book Hoofprints on the Land. How traditional herding and grazing can restore the soil and bring animal agriculture back in balance with the Earth will be launched on 5th January at the Oxford Real Farming Conference which is the ‘largest gathering of the agroecological movement on the planet, dedicated to transforming food & farming systems for good’.

I could not think of a better venue for releasing Hoofprints which is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, both in UK and USA.

This is how the publisher describes it:

A timely, powerful but also incredibly lyrical book about nomadic pastoralism and how traditional herding cultures are not a thing of the past but a regenerative model for the future. Nomadic herding is the most ancient and natural means of keeping livestock, and this book debunks the myth that animal-free agriculture is the only way forward for a healthy planet.

Hoofprints on the Land is Ilse Köhler-Rollefson’s passionate rallying cry for those invisible and forgotten herding cultures that exist all over the world, both of ancient heritage and modern pioneers. These are people that tend their flocks, from alpacas to reindeer, cattle and sheep, camels, goats and yaks, in harmony with the land and in partnership with their animals, a relationship that is founded not on exploitation but reciprocity.

Hoofprints is already available for pre-order from Chelsea Green Publishing (in the USA), Amazon, and some other bookshops which ship globally.

Will the UN Convention of Biological Diversity ever help the true guardians of biodiversity?

Recently I had the pleasure and good fortune of visiting the Van Gujjars, a buffalo breeding transhumant community that traditionally migrates between their winter stays in the forested foothills of the Himalayas and alpine pastures in the summer. As our host and guide, Meer Hamza, founder of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuvak Sangathan, explained, the identity of this community is based on its intimate relationship with the Gojri buffalo breed that is able to climb up incredibly steep hillsides and produces totally natural – and cruelty free – milk is processed into butter, ghee, paneer and khoa, with male buffaloes being sold to farmers who use them to genetically upgrade their own stock.

The Van Gujjar way of life is about the most ecologically positive one can imagine, with their seasonally used homes built only out of natural materials and an almost complete independence from fossil fuels and non-solar energy.

One would think that the Van Gujjar’s role in producing food without the usual externalities and in harmony with nature would be recognized and merit all possible support, but instead they face constant harassment on their migrations and are threatened by eviction from the Forest Department, as much of their territory has been declared a national park.

During migration between summer and winter pastures, the Van Gujjar often camp on the roadside.

This battle has already been going for decades and taken on many twists and turns, too complex to reiterate here. Suffice it to say that life is made difficult for people who basically conserve nature, although India, together with almost all other countries, is a signatory of the legally binding UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The Nagoya Protocol was supposed to ensure that communities who steward biodiversity receive benefits and introduced the concept of ‘Community Protocols’.

It is now twelve years ago that the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits arising from their Utilization was negotiated as an addendum to the CBD to ensure benefits reached those communities that actually steward biological diversity and are holders of traditional knowledge on genetic resources. The Nagoya Protocol obligated its parties to encourage the development of Community Protocols in which indigenous and local communities would document their role in the conservation of genetic resources and biological diversity. It was hailed as a milestone by both governments and Civil Society,including my own organization. Together with like-minded NGOs we jumped on this opportunity enthusiastically, expecting it to be an avenue to finally get recognition for pastoralists and their biodiversity conserving ways. We catalysed a number of ‘biocultural community protocols’ by a number of pastoralist groups, including several in India, but also in Kenya and elsewhere. Only to find out that they were totally ignored and had no impact whatsoever.

Looking back on almost twenty years of advocacy, it seems to me that the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has not really made any difference. It was ill-designed from the start by placing biodiversity and genetc resources under control and ownership of nation states rather than declaring them as our common global heritage. As most biodiversity is found in the South, while its commercial applications benefitted the North, this probably seemed an equitable approach that would compensate the so-called ‘developing countries’ for past injustices. Furthermore, the move was supposed to encourage countries to steward their biodiversity, but in practice it has reduced biodiversity into a commercial good. Those communities who actually protect biodiversity by means of their way of life continue to be ignored, left unsupported, or and evicted from the ancestral territories they conserved.

One of the several attempts of promoting conservation partnerships with indigenous communities, is the Dana Declaration on Mobile People and Conservation that was the outcome of a workshop held in Jordan by conservationists in 2002. Recently a follow-up workshop (Dana +20) was held, this time with representatives of pastoralist and other mobile communities that put together the Dana+20 Manifesto on Mobile Peoples

Will the manifesto be heard at the upcoming 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) of the UN Biodiversity Conference that will take place in December in Montreal?

There is always a lot of fanfare around the COPs, but in reality few if any benefits have trickled down to the communities who live with biodiversity. Besides the Van Gujjars, look at what is happening in Tanzania with the Maasai being evicted, and closer to home, there are the few remaining Raika pastoralists who are threatened by the establishment of a tiger reserve in their monsoon grazing grounds, although they are singlehandedly responsible for the conservation of India’s dwindling camel population.

Review of ‘Livestock for a Small Planet’ by Judith Schwartz in the Pastoral Times

Judith Schwartz is one of the few environmental journalists who recognize the importance of livestock for the health of the planet. She is author of the classic Cows Save the Planet, and more recently of Reindeer Chronicles. I am delighted to share her review of ‘Livestock for a Small Planet‘, originally published in the latest edition of Pastoral Times (a highly recommendable broadsheet about happenings in the pastoral world that currently comes free of charge into your inbox).

Ilse Köhler-Rollefson’s timely and compelling report is an homage to Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet, which places food at the center of social justice and calls attention to the ecological cost of industrial meat production and consumption. In the five decades since that book’s publication, the world has gotten yet smaller, thanks to the Internet, more accessible travel, and increasingly opaque global supply chains. In addition, livestock—the heartbeat of traditional cultures throughout the world and integral to the livelihood of a billion-plus people—have become vilified and blamed for crises from water shortages to climate change. Köhler-Rollefson’s succinct, readable book directly takes on widespread misunderstandings about animal agriculture and shows how nature-aligned livestock stewardship can sustain people and planet. At a time when anti-livestock rhetoric has reached a treble pitch (to wit: with world leaders at this month’s COP26 climate summit urged to forego meat) Köhler-Rollefson’s cogent, clear-eyed account is a powerful corrective.

            Rather than getting mired in well-trodden arguments, the author offers a fresh angle on animal-land dynamics informed by decades of observing pastoral practices. For example, she points out that nature has designed plants to be stationary and animals to be on the move. Under modern, industrial management, however, animals are kept in place while plants are cultivated as commodity feedstock and delivered to livestock, a system that involves shipping goods around the world. The health of the land, the animals, and the people who consume animal products all suffer as a consequence. This plant-animal “role reversal”, she writes, transforms a system based on solar energy into one totally dependent on fossil fuels. Highlighting the folly of manipulating nature to conform to markets cuts through squabbles about the need to intensify production in order to feed the world.

            Köhler-Rollefson brings in the perspective of pastoralists, whose voices are often missing in policy discussions. Conversations about livestock tend to betray Western ethnocentrism, she says. She makes the point that we humans evolved in tandem with the animals we raise, and stresses the deep knowledge that herding cultures have built over time. If we lose these animals and traditional herding ways, she suggests, we lose a part of ourselves.

            The book is divided into two distinct sections. The first zeroes in on nine common myths about livestock. This format allows the author to effectively counter misinformation and bring facts to what has become an emotional topic. She points out that rather than undermining food production by “taking up too much land”, livestock thrive in landscapes that are unsuited for crop agriculture. At a moment when many in western countries see livestock as climate villains and meat eating as unethical, Köhler-Rollefson makes the distinction between industrial management, which is environmentally destructive and cruel to animals, and pastoral systems, which regenerate dryland environments and afford animals better lives than in the wild.

            The author takes on the fraught topic of greenhouse gas emissions, emphasizing the distinction between methane, a short-lived gas generated by the breaking down of plant material, and carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere indefinitely. As she acknowledges, this is a complex matter and the focus of much fuzzy “cows-are-bad” math. She correctly says that regenerative grazing can build carbon in soils, thereby absorbing atmospheric CO2, and mentioned the high-profile example of ranch-owner and one-time US presidential candidate Tom Steyer. She could have noted, however, that restorative livestock rearing is more than a quirky California trend, as grassland restoration via holistic grazing is a rapidly growing, worldwide movement. For example, Savory Global now has training hubs in twenty countries and has developed land-to-market meat, dairy, wool, and leather supply chains based on ecological monitoring protocols. This underscores the increased awareness of grazing solutions and the wealth of potential alliances for pastoral communities.

            One small quibble is the author’s parenthetical remark that grasslands require occasional burning. This is not true of all grassland ecosystems. What is necessary is a means of breaking down senescent vegetation. As Allan Savory points out, this process can occur chemically, through fire, or biologically, via the digestion of ruminant animals. While fire emits particulates and greenhouse gases and leaves bare soil, grazing sustains moisture and promotes more life on the land. It is important to acknowledge that herbivores represent an alternative to fire as well as a factor in fire resilience.

            The second part articulates a vision for livestock management that aligns with nature and the needs of herding societies. The author challenges the assumption that we should intensify animal production, saying that what we actually need is to extensify livestock herding so that more plant waste material can be “upcycled” to protein-rich food and more land benefits from regenerative animal impact. She highlights the value of heritage breeds suited to specific locales and the need to empower small-scale farmers and herders. This part, a blueprint for a just, ethical, and regenerative livestock future, is essential reading,: a manifesto for human-animal partnership on a resource-stressed planet.

             “Livestock for a Small Planet” extends a hand to readers familiar with problems linked to modern animal agriculture but may not be aware of alternatives—or that pastoral cultures have much to teach us. In all, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson does a wonderful job in showing the role livestock play in making our small planet go round.

Livestock for a Small Planet

On 5th October, the League for Pastoral Peoples will be launching a new booklet ‘Livestock for a Small Planet’ with a panel of renown livestock experts who have kindly agreed to discuss it.

You can register for this event here and download the publication below

In this small volume I have tried to distill the essence of what I have learnt from the Raika and other pastoralists over the last 30 years, mainly by observing how they are obsessed with grazing for their herds and keeping them healthy, how they treat animals as part of their families, and how they look at landscapes through the eyes of their flocks. Basically how they have a holistic view instead of atomized knowledge as scientists tend to have.

Over the last few years the discussion about livestock has become extremely polarized, with one faction wanting us divorce from our 10,000 year old relationship with farm animals. On the other side is the pro-livestock lobby which does not admit to any faults with how livestock is often being kept and believes in increasing ‘efficiency’ to compensate for livestock emissions and environmental impacts.

There is a golden middle way of keeping livestock humanely and within planetary boundaries for which traditional herding communities (pastoralists) can show us the way. If we adopt their principles of keeping Iivestock in tune with nature, much will be gained and we will be in a much better position to cope with climate change and the increasingly variable conditions this entails.

I am the first to admit that it is impossible to immediately implement a transition to pastoralism everywhere, but we need to adopt the goal post of going back to solar powered rather than fossil fuel powered animal husbandry, say by 2040. And we need to begin that transition now, before it is too late! Lets focus our energies there rather than on eliminating livestock from the planet. They are indispensable allies in keeping the earth inhabitable and we just need to treat them as such – and not as slaves.

I am very grateful to Vandana Shiva for being one of the first readers and am delighted to share her quote:

“Humans are animals. Pastoralists, small farmers, indigenous cultures live with their animals as members of their family. Industrialisation of agriculture and our food systems is based on objectification, manipulation and commodification of plants and animals for highest extraction profits. This has led to violence against animals. Putting an end to the war against our relatives needs putting an end to factory farming and industrial agriculture.  Ilse Köhler Rollefson’s “Livestock for a Small Planet” shows the way. It should be read by everyone who cares for the planet and animals. Most importantly, reading about animal cultures who love their animals and sustain their lives and livelihoods in loving and caring relationships with their livestock will remove the ignorance of those who are supporting fake lab food under the illusion that pushing livestock to extinction is ending animal cruelty. Intentional extermination is the highest form of violence. .”Livestock for a Small Planet” is vital reading to transcend the mechanistic, industrial paradigm which objectifies life , promotes monocultures and violent economies. It is an important contribution to protecting our rich biological and cultural diversity. It shows the path for  protecting , celebrating and regenerating the cultures of non violent livestock economies and food systems that protect the planet while nourishing people with healthy diets.”

Hoping to see you all at the launch with Elizabeth Katushabe from PENHA- Uganda, Frank Mitloehner from CLEAR Centre at University of California in Davis, Peer Ederer of the Scientific Council of the World Farmers Organization and Shirley Tarawali, Chair of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock and ILRI All cogently and charmingly moderated by Nitya Ghotge of ANTHRA!

How pastoralism and biodiversity go together…and why we are mapping pastoralists !

Buffaloes and birdlife at Chillika Lake in Odisha (India)

On 22 May, the International Day of Biological Diversity, we must recall that food production is the world’s worst enemy of biodiversity. When we cultivate crops, we replace native plant assemblages with monocultures and, in order to protect them, usually apply rounds of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizer. This cocktail eliminates the micro-organisms and insects at the bottom of the food chain, depleting amphibia, reptiles, birds, and mammals, eventually leading to sterile landscapes.

Pastoralism is the only exception from this predominant model of fulfilling our nutritional needs: the natural plant cover is not removed and herd animals directly convert biodiversity into edibles, circumventing all the toxic and carbon-intensive steps involved in most crop production. It is based on natural biological processes and is powered by the sun. Because of the absence of un-natural inputs, pastoral areas are the original ‘lands of milk and honey’.

Raika sheep flock at the edge of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary

Areas where pastoralists roam are often picked for setting up wildlife sanctuaries or national parks. This is no accident.  In the absence of crop cultivation, biodiversity thrives.  “If you have pastoralists, you do not need a national park” emphasizes Jesus Garzon-Heydt, one of Spain’s most prominent conservationists.  He is one of the movers and shakers behind the revival of Spain’s transhumance and its ancient drove roads, the Cañadas.  In medieval Spain, a network of drove roads was established by royal decree that facilitated the semi-annual movement of five million sheep, goats, pigs, cattle and horses between their winter quarters in the southern and coastal lowlands to summer pastures in the mountainous areas of the north. The Cañadas were up to 75 meters wide, with a total length of around 125,000 km and covering a surface of more than 420,000 hectares of common property, equivalent to 1% of Spain’s total area. This pastureland buzzes with biodiversity in terms of plants, butterflies, and beetles. Vultures made a comeback when transhumance was revived[i].

Research on Spain’s transhumant sheep also led to another important ecological discovery: The role of migratory livestock as “seed taxis”. Sheep transport thousands of seeds over hundreds of kilometres in their fleece[ii]. With changing climates, this can be an important vehicle for plants to move into new areas that fit their requirements and thereby prevent their extinction. Besides seeds, sheep can also carry lizards, beetles and grasshoppers, aiding their movement to new biotopes and adaptation to a changing biome during climate change. In Germany sheep were found to redistribute up to 8500 seeds from 57 species[iii]. The monetary value of the seed transportation services of a flock of sheep amounted to some 4500 EURO for a 200 head flock.

It is important to document the relationship between pastoralists and biodiversity. ‘Community Protocols’ are a tool promoted by the Convention on Biological Diversity to do this. This guide can be downloaded here

Sheep don’t just do this by default and the nature of their wooliness, some herders make conscious efforts to disperse the seeds of preferred plants. Pastoralists in the Islamic Republic of Iran pack seeds in little bags and hang these around the necks of their sheep. During grazing the seeds drop out through little holes in the bags and are worked into to the ground by the sheep’s hooves[iv].

It is not just that livestock transport seeds, they also aid their germination through scarification. ‘Scarification’ has nothing to do with tattoos, but is a botanical term that refers to weakening the coat of a seed, so that it can break up and germinate. Many acacia trees, for instance, have very hard seed coats and their seeds need to pass through the stomach of a ruminant in order to be able to sprout. After they have scarified the seeds, livestock also conveniently trample them into the ground like a forest gardener.

‘Trampling’ has other ecological effects as well, mostly positive, although it all depends on the intensity and the context. The depressions left by hooves fill with water and become mini-habitats for insects and amphibians, which then provide food for all kinds of birds and mammals. And here we come to the general role of grazing animals at the bottom of the food chain. Their droppings are powerful incubators for a huge diversity of beetles and buzzing insects that not only feed populations of insectivorous birds, bats and reptiles, but also break down the manure into its constituents that feed soil bacteria and loosen up the soil. The presence or absence of grazing animals in a landscape makes a huge difference to its biodiversity.

Researchers in Germany have concluded that mechanical mowing of meadows has a disastrous effect on insects, killing up to 80% of cicadas, for instance.  They see it as a one of the major factors in the dramatic loss of insect, bird, amphibian and reptile populations.that the country has experienced.[v] This is one of the reasons why ‘grazing’ is the country’s most popular nature conservation strategy and shepherds make more of their income from conservation activities than the sale of products.

Why mapping pastoralism?

Yet, livestock has turned into a bogeyman and is blamed for .many of our planetary problems. Meat is projected as the world’s biggest environmental ill. There is truth in these accusations, but they do not pertain to pastoralism which works on different principles than intensive ways of livestock production. So it is crucial that we make the distinction clear and draw attention to the potential of pastoralism for the ‘nature positive production‘ that is so prominently envisioned in the context of the International Food System Summit. By mapping pastoralism we can visualize the extent of already existing ‘nature positive production’ and that we need to support these systems and communities if we want to put our planet on a more sustainable trajectory. On 25th May, at 2 p.m. CEST, there will be an introduction to this crowd-sourced mapping project for which you can still register here.

‘Mapping Pastoralists’ is a project of the League for Pastoral Peoples and its partners. It is very much work in progress that depends on help and information from the ground. Here is the link to the map:

[i] Pedro P. Oleaa,*, Patricia Mateo-Tomás . 2009. The role of traditional farming practices in ecosystem conservation: The case of transhumance and vultures. Biological Conservation 142 (2009) 1844–1853

[ii] P. Manzano and J. Malo, 2006. Extreme long‐distance seed dispersal via sheep. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4(5):244-248.

[iii] Fischer, S., Poschlod, P., & Beinlich, B. (1996). Experimental Studies on the Dispersal of Plants and Animals on Sheep in Calcareous Grasslands. Journal of Applied Ecology, 33(5), 1206-1222. doi:10.2307/2404699

[iv] Koocheki,  A. 1992. Herders care for their land. ILEIA Newsletter, 8(3): 3

[v] Nickel H 2017. Evolution im Naturschutz: Von der Weide zur Wiese und zurück?

Pastoral Alchemy, Palm oil, Net-Zero Dairy and One Health

Feeding on the Indian Globe Thistle (Echinops echinatus), a plant with known medicinal properties, produces exceptionally sweet milk

‘There is a disconnect between what we feed animals and food science’

(Dr. Sylvain Charlebois @foodprofessor)

The camels that I work with and that supply the milk for the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy are said by their Raika keepers to feed on 36 different ayurvedic plants. It varies seasonally which plants they nosh on: forest trees and vines during the monsoon, and pods of acacia trees in the summer. At this time of year, in February, they are roaming around on fields that are totally covered in the Indian Globe Thistle – Echinops echinatus – a tall and spiky plant that no other livestock will touch. Locally known as unt kantalo (‘camel thistle’), it makes the milk incredibly sweet, as well as foamy. It tastes like ambrosia. Of course our camel breeders are addicted to the elixir, but even our esteemed visitor, Dr. Tatti from Prompt Innovations could not get enough of it during a recent visit!

After returning from the (thistle) field, I looked up Echinops echinatus and found out that all kinds of medicinal properties are ascribed to it: antifungal, analgesic, diuretic, reproductive, hepatoprotective, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, wound-healing, antipyretic, and antibacterial properties. Its even good for your sex-life! (Is that why camel milk is regarded as an aphrodisiac?)

By indulging in thistles, camels actually provide three different kinds of services:

  • They de-weed which is appreciated by the farmers who own the land and who hate unt-kantalo, that creeps up during the time their land lies fallow.
  • They provide organic manure and deposit it precisely where it is needed
  • They produce this wonderful milk that I can only liken to ambrosia in taste.
  • They also produce offspring!

Its almost miraculous how the camels transform an unwanted material into a health tonic and at the same time replenish and fertilize the soil. Pure pastoral alchemy! And it exemplifies how livestock is best used, in sync with nature: pastoralism only gives, it does not take.

Canada’s ‘Buttergate’: palm oil in dairy feed

I can’t help but link this scenario to a scandal that is currently engulfing the Canadian dairy industry: the fact that butter no longer softens at room temperature, apparently due to cows being fed with supplementary palm oil. Palm oil, of all things! When it is known that a. its cultivation is one of the most biodiversity destroying activities and b. it has also been associated with negative effects on human health. The Canadian public is outraged, as many have been buying butter to avoid palm oil, and dairy farmers are well subsidized in order to produce healthy food, according to Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, senior director at Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab. In an interview he also points at a disconnect between what animals are fed and how this affects human/public health. I think this is a crucial point that needs to be remedied urgently, because it is of such relevance to the much touted One Health approach, which considers human, animal and ecological health as interconnected. It would certainly help validate pastoralist food production!

Is pastoralism naturally ‘net zero’?

And there is another hot issue to which I would like to link the observations on the thistle field: The dairy sector is now feeling the heat from the anti-livestock propaganda and is making an earnest attempt to become ‘net zero‘ in terms of Green House Gas emissions by 2050. One of the approaches they are promoting is to process manure into fertilizer. I am wondering if pastoralists are not already there at ‘net zero’ dairy production, because their systems are entirely solar powered and they use practically no fossil fuels. At the same time, they reduce the need for chemical fertilizer (whose production is extremely GHG intensive) and also the need for weed killers. It would be great if a credible research organization could do a life cycle analysis of this particular camel dairy system, as well as other pastoralist production systems!

If you are interested to learn more about the unique camel dairy system described and would like to support it, please go to our Patreon page here.

On World Milk Day (1 June), Camel Milk is set to make a splash!

For the 1st time ever, a global coalition of camel milk consumers, experts & dairy producers from 35 countries will raise a virtual glass for camel milk. This is the first-time camel milk is on the global World Milk Day agenda since it began 20 years ago. Sales in camel milk are growing, as is interest, in this more natural, climate friendly and allergy free healthy dairy option, both as a stand-alone milk and as an active ingredient in camel milk products.

The global camel milk products market size was valued at USD 10.2 billion in 2019.[1]  Camel milk is highly sought after for its anti-inflammatory, strong protective proteins, anti-microbial and nutritious value and works well for lactose intolerance

“The global camel market is projected to grow at more than 10% for the next decade, so more camel milk in the future!” said Dr. Bernard Faye, veterinarian and chair of ISOCARD, the International Society of Camelid Research and Development.

The unique health benefits of camel milk:

Camel milk works across a range of physical and behavioral issues, making it a highly effective alternative.  “Parents of children with autism remain a key and growing market, as studies show the milk is safe and effective and can lead to behavioral and medical improvements,” stated Christina Adams, author of several publications on camel milk and editorial board member of the Journal of Camel Science.

“The fatty acids in camel milk are also better for human hearts as they contain more mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids than cow milk. Low in allergenic proteins, camel milk is also the best alternative to human milk and for children with severe food allergies or eczema,” said Dr Tahereh Mohammadabadi, Associate Professor, Khuzestan Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources University, Iran.

A growing market for camel milk

The Middle East and Africa dominate with more than 60% of the global camel livestock revenue. Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya consume the most per capita in the region. Saudi Arabia is the largest market in the world at around 33 litres per year, per capita. North America is expected to grow the fastest as consumers with diabetes switch to camel milk to better control sugar levels.

The cow dairy industry is known to be a well-organized and powerful lobby force. Until now the camel milk private sector has been mostly established in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Mauritania. But with climate change and growing consumer concerns about ethics and farming, camel herders and camel milk producers are expanding worldwide.

For the past 50 years, camels are the second-fastest growing herbivorous livestock in the world, after buffalo, and has grown annually significantly by 4.5 % in the past decade in Africa (FAO).[2] The Middle East and the Horn of Africa camels lead the charge, as the second-fastest growing herbivore livestock in the world after buffalo (FAO).

Regions in Africa are switching to camels even where they never were before, e.g. Uganda and Tanzania « There is so much tradition and long-term use across the world, but we need more scientific research on camel in general  and especially on camel milk” Says Mohammed Bengoumi, Tunisia based FAO camel expert. 

Facing climate change on the equator in Kenya and Australia, more commercial dairy farmers are diversifying or switching to camels as they do better in tough, drought-ridden, hot climates and browse on prickly bushes and shrubs that most farm animals avoid.

“The camel milk industry is undervalued but could rival other foreign exchange earners in Kenya. Drought and the fact that 89% of Kenya is classified as arid and semi-arid land means many are shifting from cows to camels, even in southern Kenya,” said Dr James Chomba Njanja, Vice Chair of the Kenya Camel Association.

Every year an estimated 3 million tons of camel milk are officially sold and consumed around the world. But the true production level could be double that, at around 5-6 million tons per year. A fact of note is that 70% camel milk is consumed by the camel owners and never reaches the market.

“The camel saved humans for generations in the desert.  In arid areas and hot weather over 45C, we see cows suffer as they need 8-10 times more water than camels to produce 1 litre of milk,” said Dr. Abdul Raziq Kakar, a UAE based camel dairy specialist from Pakistan and Camels4All blogger.

Camel herding nomads who have traditionally bred camels for centuries are also benefiting from the interest in camel milk. “Supporting decentralized camel farming through innovative models is a great opportunity to reduce poverty and to better food security in some of the poorest parts of the world,” concluded Dr. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, project coordinator of the League for Pastoral Peoples. 

For all these climate friendly, natural and immune-boosting reasons, please raise a virtual or real glass of camel milk to celebrate this World Milk Day!

#worldmilkday #enjoydairy #camelmilk

For information, photos and comment in Germany and India, contact me at ilse.koehlerroll@gmail.comxxxx

For information, photos and interviews with camel milk experts worldwide: Samantha Bolton

+41 79 239 23 66 – – Twitter: @camel_wild  and  @sambolton007


[2]The global milk market grew at a steady pace of 3.89% per year between 2011 and 2018 (FAO)

Rajasthan’s unique and caring camel culture is on its deathbed….but we can still save it!

Photo by Sophie Matterson taken in 2017. This camel herd no longer exists.

The news about Rajasthan’s state animal is depressing and heart-wrenching: According to the just released official livestock census of India, the country’s camel population has decreased by 37.1% since the last survey in 2012 and is now down to 250,000 (compare that to 1.5 million camels in the late 1980s, and the fact that camel numbers doubled in the rest of the world!). This has happened despite various protection measures having been put in place by the Government of Rajasthan after the previous census in 2012, such as a law prohibiting slaughter and movement across state borders.

Photo by Sophie Matterson: Where will these camels end up?

In less than two weeks, the Pushkar Camel Fair will attract thousands of tourists who come to visit what is still as billed the world’s largest camel fair, even though it has turned into a horse and amusement fair; the famous camel hill has been annihilated by helipads and resorts, causing the normally placid herders to stage a rally against these conditions.

Protest at Puskar Fair in 2018 against conditions. The rally was successful: District Collector and Fair administration provided access to water and tried to ameliorate the situation.

Nevertheless, hundreds of female camels – pregnant, lactating, with babies on foot – are currently being driven to Pushkar in order to sell them off for good. Its an arduous trek over many hundreds of miles and undertaken out of sheer desperation by traditional camel herders who have owned these herds since many generations, but who can no longer make a living from them. Although it breaks their hearts to sell off their ancestral herds, they get pressured by relatives to take this final step and exit herding. Its not just the camels and the livelihoods that are vanishing, but a whole eco-system of community knowledge and mutual support. It takes a community to raise camels!

Photo by Sophie Matterson. Raika camels are so close to their keepers they are easily milked without need for restraint

Over the last few years many of them have held on to their herds hoping that a market for camel milk would develop. But this has not materialized, except for a lucky few who live close to the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy on the campus of LPPS in Rajasthan’s Pali district and of which I am a founder.  Since it was set up, we have been getting dozens of phone calls every week by Raika begging us to purchase their milk. But despite our best efforts, we have not been able to raise turn-over and only a handful of camel herders have benefited. The milk is marketed mostly directly to the end consumer (80% of them are parents of autistic children), frozen and shipped in ice containers.

Photo by Sophie Matterson: camel milk is a magic potion!

There have also been efforts to link up with supermarket chains, but this is expensive, and our start-up has not had the necessary resources, in addition to the logistical challenges. I am convinced that camels are the dairy animal of the future, given the steady rise of temperatures and sinking water levels in Rajasthan and many other parts of the world. They are worthy of investment by all the institutions that concern themselves with food security such as FAO, ILRI, IFAD, WFP.  Sadly, none of these is somehow in a position to help support a system that provides livelihoods, saves biodiversity and produces incredibly nutritious food that seems to be an antidote to industrial diets.

In the last few years, animal welfare organizations have spent a lot of money on confiscating camels from places such as Hydrabad and then trucking the poor camels back to Rajasthan ‘where they belong’, and this is the kind of story that gets a lot of media attention. But its not a success story – although the camels may be saved for the moment, what is happening to them in the long run? For sure, a dedicated camel shelter exists in Sirohi, but its resources are also limited, camels get picked up somehow and again may undergo a harrowing transport to a slaughter house. All this could be avoided! It would be so much more animal friendly, if the remaining camel herders could be PAID a living wage to continue taking care of their herds, at least for another year. Costs would be much less than rescuing and transporting the camels back to Rajasthan and provide for their care in a camel shelter. It remains to be seen if the dedication of animal activists extends to seeing the rationale of such an approach.

Camels get rescued in Hyderabad – AFTER they have been sold and trekked for thousands of miles. This could be prevented by a proper approach and supporting camel herders with a living wage.


Conserving Rajasthan’s camel herds is an investment that surely will bear fruit – socially, ecologically, and in terms of human nutrition and animal welfare – in the long run. There is also reason to believe that it will eventually be financially worthwhile, considering the significant amount of  research underpinning the therapeutic qualities of camel milk for diseases, such as diabetes and autism. The ‘magic of camel milk’ is the subject of a new book by American author and autism mother Christina Adams. There are also researchers who believe that camel milk is of special value for tackling air pollution, although this is still to be published.

Another important aspect of camel milk is its very high iron content, indicating that it could be of extreme value in alleviating Rajasthan’s high prevalence of malnutrition: anaemia is present in half of the pregnant women, and 23 percent of children are born with low birth weight.  Around 39 percent of children are stunted. If we could link Rajasthan’s camel breeders who sit on about 35,000 liters of unutilized camel milk with government nutrition programs, this would be a win-win situation for everybody.

But this will take time to set up. In the meantime it is urgent to prevent loss of Rajasthan’s camel breeding herds and to prevent unnecessary camel suffering by providing a living wage to camel herders and stopping the sell-out of their herds at this Pushkar Fair.

LPPS and LPP are about to start a crowd-funding effort for this purpose. Stay tuned!