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!

 

 

 

Camel Milk Alchemy: Nature’s Antidote for Urban Lifestyles

Nomadic camel dairying: a system in which milk is shared between humans and calves.

Its World Camel Day on 22nd June and therefore time for an ode to this animal that is the product of ancient nomadic cultures, but rapidly accumulating admirers and supporters in the North.

I won’t bore you with the known and scientifically proven facts about camel milk and its therapeutic value for a range of “modern”, lifestyle diseases. After all, they are all over the place, hyped by a global, very active network of camel lovers, camel dairy entrepreneurs (of which I am one), and people who have experienced dramatic health improvements after they started consuming camel milk. Compatible with lactose intolerance, helpful for diabetes patients by reducing need for insulin injections, often beneficial for certain types of autism, are some of the well-established facts. (Contact me if you need references)

For me the wonder of the camel is associated with its nomadic origin in the vast deserts of the Arabian peninsula: Its ability to convert extremely spiky, thorny and fibrous trees or scant widely dispersed ground vegetation, sometimes with an extremely high salt content, into a delicious elixir that is ideally positioned to address the needs of the times. Here are the three points that need to get more attention in  future research and work on camels:

At the beginning of the camel dairy system are, in my nook of the world in Rajasthan: Extremely drought resistant trees and shrubs with deep roots that enable them to withstand years without rainfall. These trees, such as this Acacia leucophloea, are used in ayurvedic medicine, and full of phytochemicals and micronutrients absent from modern diets.

 

  1. An opportunity for creating a more animal friendly and more ecologically sustainable milk production system.

The emerging camel dairy sector should carefully avoid  the pitfalls of conventional dairying, such as hyper-bred cows needing expensive feed, throw away male calves, exploitation of farmers, and dismantling of milk into its constituent parts. Camel dairying must remain a system based on nature in which camels harvest leafs and pods of wild plants and convert this biodiverse biomass into a powerful, entirely naturally health elixir.  In start-up speak, camel dairying is a system to disrupt conventional practices and approaches to dairying.

  1. Climate change proofing.

With average temperatures inching up annually in the already hot parts of the world, no other animal is as well positioned to support dryland food production (“adaptation”). Camel milk production requires less fossil fuels than cow milk production. What other food producing strategy do you know that makes do without the plough, fossil fuels, fertilizers, harvesting machinery? And it is worth mentioning (although this part of the anti-livestock story is being debunked now) that they emit less methane than cows, maybe also because of their diet high in tannins (“mitigation”).

3. Camel milk chills

Is it the high amount of GABA in camel milk that gives it that chilling, relaxing effect?

Camel milk is good for your health, but from personal experience I feel it is not just about physical health but about something more: about peace of mind! Drinking fresh camel milk is almost intoxicating:  It helps you relax and focus.  It’s the perfect antidote for a hectic, constantly on-line, multi-tasking lifestyle. Its grounds you.

The scientific explanation for this might be its high content of  GABA (Gamma-Amino-Butyric Acid), a substance that blocks neuro-transmitters and reduces the number of neurons firing in the brain, thereby promoting relaxation, sleep and easing anxiety.

Apart from that I feel it helps you cope better with heat – which would only be logical. And a new research hypothesis holds that it can help your body dealing with air pollution. More about that hopefully soon.

Try it out – camel milk puts you into a Sufi mood!

 

 

 

 

Out of Australia (2): Camel dairying – a kinder approach to milk production?

Australia’s camel dairy sector provides exciting vistas – here at Summerland Camel Farm

The modern dairy sector is keeping supermarket shelves well stocked, but if you look behind the scenes it is often not a pretty picture: A glut of milk is depressing prices and forcing small and medium sized farmers to give up. The cows are numbers that wander back and forth between feeding troughs and milking carousels, eager to relieve themselves of the pressure of the enormous volumes of milk that they have been wired to produce.  Their life spans are short, and mothers and calves are separated at birth; calves are housed in solitary igloos, and the male calves have become an unwanted by-product as their slow growth rate makes them uneconomical for fattening. Then there is the much debated issue of A1 versus A2 milk with the former suspected to be a causal factor for allergies and many modern “lifestyle” diseases. This appears to gain increasing traction with the world’s largest dairy companies, including Fonterra, Amul and even Nestle establishing special A2 brands.

Looking at this scenario one can almost understand the increasingly militant cries of vegans that all livestock farming should be prohibited. As an advocate for pastoralists, I of course do not agree with this, but I also think that the livestock community needs to address animal welfare issues in a more fundamental way than has happened so far. As one of the founders of the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy in Rajasthan, one of the questions that keeps me awake at night is whether camel dairying can be steered onto a kinder, gentler, and more ecological trajectory than we have witnessed in conventional dairying:  towards systems in which producers get a fair price, where camels are not turned into milk vats, and are kept in systems that allow them a social life with opportunity for exercise and mental stimulation.

Looking at the websites of some of the better known camel milk brands, one gets the impression that some thought is indeed going into these issues. So what is the situation in Australia with its historically troubled camel relationship?  More than half a dozen camel dairies have sprung up down under,  stocked with camels that have been caught in the wild and trained for milking. Its a small but constructive measure of making productive use of the country’s wild camels that have been cast as environmental menace rather than an asset.

After a glorious excursion into the outback on the tracks of the early Australian cameleers,  I had the exciting opportunity to visit two camel dairies on the east coast near Brisbane.  Both were impressive and provided valuable insights.  But they were also quite different in their approaches which I am tempted to call ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’.

Q Camel, is the first dairy to “produce premium pasteurised camel milk in Australia” according to its website. It is the baby of Lauren Brisbane and a family-run enterprise,  promoting “ethical, organic and sustainable farming practices and a no-cull environment in which milk is shared with calves”.

The farm is spread out against the beautiful backdrop of the Glasshouse Mountains. When we drive up milking is in progress, performed by two young ladies, who oversee how the camels walk into the stand and then place the milking cups onto their teats. Lauren, in a coverall and wearing an Akoubra hat, explains that QCamel has about 100 camels of which 20-22 would be milking with each one producing between 1.5 to 2 liters per day. She makes a point of recruiting her staff from people without previous camel experience. “Women are better milkers” she says. The camels certainly are supremely relaxed, inquisitively nozzling my face while the milking machines pulsate away rhythmically, drawing the milk into the pails.  Meanwhile the babies look on with great curiousity, play tag or or engage in light hearted wrestling matches. A nearby paddock is reserved for new camel moms with their curly-haired cuties almost hidden by the high grass. The place exudes tranquillity and peace – its a meditation on how people and animals can co-exist, each benefitting from the other species! Certainly more fun for the camels than living in the wild, and having all their needs taken care of rather than having to cope with droughts in the outback!

Its camel heaven at QCamel !

Lauren takes us on a ride in her pick-up truck to distribute bales of hay to camels roaming around in some of the far corners of the seemingless endless expanse of land which is co-grazed with cattle.  The milk tastes clean and refreshing; it is processed into a variety of products, including quark in an off-farm dairy processing unit under her supervision. They also make a range of beauty products.

“What do you do with the males ?”, I ask Lauren and she replies: “Oh we find good homes for them, there is a strong demand for them for weed control on some farms. A young male camel costs about 1000 AUD.”

Other interesting tidbits I glean from Lauren is that the shooting of camels from helicopters has almost stopped in Australia, with the exception of very targeted and localized actions in Western Australia; that most of the country’s camels are on Aboriginal land and that Aboriginals are the biggest camel owners, always looking for ways of making commercial use of them. Some camel meat is exported to feed the Moroccan army and female camels are also exported to the Middle East to serve as surrogate mothers in embryo transfer projects.

If you are interested in experiencing this camel heaven I encourage you to book the Camel Cuddles experience that QCamel offers!

I apologize for my language, but a more “masculine” approach to camel farming is reflected by the Summerland Camel Farm which is the brainchild (sic) of Jeff Flood and Paul Martin. Located in an equally beautiful setting near Harrisville south of Brisbane, with vulcanic peaks in the background, it is on a totally different scale. This is not just a family enterprise but backed by investors of the Australian Wild Camel Corporation.

Jeff, a biochemist and nutritional immunologist, sits down with us in the Café that is housed in a beautiful white Queenslander. The verandah offers a breath taking view over camel studded paddocks which he proclaims to have the “most fertile soils in the southern hemisphere”.

Having big investors of course means you have to have a profitable operation and Jeff has clear ideas as to how that’s to be achieved: by bringing down the production costs of camel milk to that of cow milk. For this he has ambitious plans, with the next step being to increase the headcount from around 600 to 1100 camels and also by improving the genetic make-up of their herd.

While Jeff takes care of some urgent calls, I have a look at the menucard which offers the most expansive selection of camel goodies and dishes I have come across anywhere: several types of cheeses, including feta, halloumi, fromage blanc, meats (salami, minced meat, stew and steaks), absolutely fabulous gelatos (try the chai latte flavour), and a variety of pastries with camel milk as ingredient.

While I am enjoying the “Avocado smash with camel feta”, Jeff’s partner Paul comes along. A specialist for regenerative grazing techniques and holistic sustainable farm management, he arranges a tour of the farm where we observe the milking, pass by the creamery where the cheeses are made and inspect the labs that are the source of the skin care products. All these experiences – camel farm experience and lab experiences – can be booked, as well as long and short camel rides.

Its a fascinating adventure that is inspiring for our work in India seeking to revive the economic importance of Rajasthan’s state animal. Certainly Australia and India can learn tremendously from each other and I need to mull over which lessons from Australia are applicable in India!

Out of Australia (1): On the tracks of the Afghan Cameleers

Are Australian camels happy?

Australia.

In my quest for a solution to Rajasthan’s camel conundrum I absolutely had to go there.

What’s the camel conundrum? Well, in brief, it’s the gloomy camel situation in Rajasthan: despite slaughter and export being prohibited, despite being a draw for tourists and even being protected as state animal, camel nmbers are depleting rapidly.

Paradoxically, in Australia the opposite seemed to be the case: Despite its feral/wild camels officially being classified as a pest and gunned down from helicopters and its meat being used for pet food and exported internationally, its population is thriving.

So why is that? Is there anything to be learnt from Australia? Are wild camels happy – as long as they are not being shot ? Happier than domesticated ones kept in “captivity”? Since many animal welfare people believe we should just stop using animals and let them live “naturally”, this issue interested me.

So there were many questions swirling around in my head when I recently embarked on a trip which provided me with at least a little bit of insight. In this I was incredibly fortunate to have the company and guidance of Debi Robinson. With her camel drawn wagon, Debi has been criss-crossing the Australian outback, including the Nullarbor, over the last decades, accummulating camel mileage that dwarfs the trip of the famous Robyn Davidson immortalized in her book Tracks.

In order to understand the Australian camel situation, we need to insert a quick history lesson here. Camels are of course not native to Australia. But from the 1860s onwards until the 1920s, about 20,000 of them were imported from South Asia for enabling the penetration of the continent, first by explorers than by railway builders and settlers. The initial shipment of camels perished. Realizing that camels on their own were no good and that expertise in camel management was required,  the promoters also brought over “Afghan” cameleers on three year contracts. This proved to be an amazing success. Camels took to the arid environment of the outback with its many salt bushes and Acacia trees (called “wattle” in Australia) like a fish to water. Ably managed by their Afghan handlers and owners, they became the engine for establishing footholds in the outback and made it possible to construct the Ghan Railway from Adelaide to Darwin, they transported heavy duty equipment to the sheep stations that were set up in the interior and carried wool back to the ports. The contribution of both “Afghans” and camels to the development of Australia was immense.

 

“Afghan” cameleer, as depicted on photograph at Beltana station

Alas, once the railway was built, the camels were deemed no longer necessary by the white colonists and the Afghans were told to shoot them. Many of them refused to do so and instead set the camels free. The camels multiplied quickly and came to be seen as a threat to the sheep and cattle ranchers, breaking fences and causing havoc to watering places. In 1925 a Camel Destruction Act was passed.

By the early 2000s, camel numbers had allegedly gone up to more than a million, so an elaborate  plan was hatched to cull 650,000 camels, and this was even justified as a means of obtaining  climate credits – as camels are ruminants and belch methane. (As an aside: camels actually emit much less methane than cattle and sheep.) The current wild/feral camel population is estimated to be around 300,000.

Back to the incredible Debi who had kindly invited me to drive up with her from Adelaide to the Marree Camel Race, an annual event initiated to keep alive the memory of the Afghan cameleer community. On the way to Marree  we would visit the historic camel places.

On the tracks of the Afghan cameleers

Debi, born on a cattle station near Alice Springs, has been with camels all her life, and because she knows that camels need to walk to be happy, she has adopted a nomadic lifestyle herself, even bringing up her five children on the move. She makes and repairs saddles and is an expert in harnessing camels, she speaks an Aboriginal language being brought up mainly by an Aboriginal couple, and she knows about bush tucker. In short, she is a living dictionary of outback ethnobotany, anthropology and history – besides being a wonderfully attentive host.

After meeting up in Burra, we drove straight north, more or less along the railway tracks.  Crossing the Flinders Ranges, we camped at Beltana Station where Thomas Elder once embarked on systematic camel breeding, stopped at Farina, the home of the legendary cameleer Gul Mohammed, before we finally reached Marree where we saw the remains of the mosque built by the Afghans – indistinguishable from abandoned mudbrick buildings  in Rajasthan.

Mural at Marree Race Course

Although the initial motivation for setting up the Marree Camel was to keep alive the memory and culture of the Afghan community,  not much of that seems to be left. There were 11 races over distances ranging from 200 m to 1000 m, and a total of about 20 camels competing. One of the races was reserved for Afghan descendants, but the show was dominated by teams of owners, trainers and jockeys who normally make a living from providing camel rides and for whom the races are a hobby.

In the finish line at Marree Camel Races

 

Debi set up a lovely little circus tent with a variety of camel design arts and crafts, including  drawings by Australian artist Malcolm Arnold. Many people were interested in the saddles she builds and repairs – the light weight models definitely an improvement over the heavy weight traditional saddles I know from India. It would be lovely to have her come over to India and share her skills in this respect – it would be to the benefit of camels used in the tourist industry!

Debi in her magical Camel Arts and Crafts tent

I asked Debi what she thought about the culling of camels and, given her deep love for camels, I expected her to totally denounce it. But her answer was much more balanced. “During drought years, the wild camels suffer tremendously and it is kinder to kill them then to let them die slowly. But the shooting from helicopters is not a clean job; many camels only get injured and immobilized; it is necessary to finish the job on the ground.”

But do camels living in the wild have a good life as long as there is no drought and they are not hunted, I wondered?  “About a third of the wild camels are injured and broken – this is due to the constant fighting between male camels. They have broken jaws which prevents them from eating properly so they die a slow and painful death. Basically, the female camels form smaller groups and kick out their male offspring after a certain age. These male camels then form bachelor groups which fight between them, so that by the time they reach maturity only 20- 30% survive. The dominant male, often escorted by a couple of “bodyguards”, then goes around looking for female camels to “steal”, killing all their offspring, geldings and other camels before taking them away. If a human gets in between this, it is often fatal”.  Debi related harrowing experiences with wild male camels trying to steal her wagon camels while she was on a trek – and how she captured and tied up one of them caught during the act!

For somebody from Rajasthan this was hard to believe. As a rule, male camels are not castrated here. They are well controlled – by means of the nosepeg – and  dont get the chance to fight among each other. And it occurs  very, very rarely that people get attacked by camels – only when they have been mistreated.

For the Australians on the other hand it seemed incredible that in India uncastrated male camels are deployed for riding and draught and that this works very well – as long as no female is around.

At the end of our trip I asked Debi for her recommendations on how to keep camels happy:

Debi’s Recipe for happy (ier) camels in Australia:

  • Set aside a huge piece of land where camels can roam freely.  The Aboriginals are grateful if people take a lease of their land and develop local jobs and income.
  • Manage these camels, by castrating male camels that are not needed or desired for breeding, and establish a breeding programme – currently Australia does not have any particular breeds; they are a hodgepodge of many different strains, although in some places fairly pure types still exist.
  • Set up a camel research centre which also teaches how to handle camels safely and benignly. A lot of mistakes are made out of ignorance.
  • Bring in expertise from foreign countries with a longer camel experience.
  • Revive the traditional crafts associated with camel handling, such as saddle and harness making.
  • Camels have to be kept moving and working. If kept in an enclosure without work, they change their frame of mind and start misbehaving.
  • Set up spots for tourists and prospective camel owners where they can observe and learn how camels behave.

I deeply appreciated these words of wisdom from a true camel nomad. Stay tuned for  my next blog when I will share my impressions of another aspect of Australian camel culture: its emerging camel dairy sector!

 

Old World Camels in the New World

Dromedaries are Old World animals but were also taken to the New World where they met different fates.
Camels are Old World animals but were also taken to the New World where they met different fates.

Dromedary and Bactrian camels are Old World species, with Camelus dromedarius being an animal of the Old World Arid Zone belt that stretches from Mauretania in the west to Rajasthans Aravalli Hills in the east, while Camelus bactrianus is a creature of the cold high-altitude deserts of China, Mongolia, Northern Iran and some other pockets.

In the 19th century, camels were exported to both Australia and North America, with very different results. Recently, I was fortunate to get some insight into the scenarios in both countries and am marvelling at the role of culture in determining the fate of an animal species.

My source of information for Australia is the reknown camel whisperer Paddy McHugh who stayed with us on our “camel farm” to demonstrate how to train camels without nosepegs (more about this issue at a later date).

paddy-in-pushkar
Paddy McHugh at the Pushkar Camel Fair.

Australia has a huge camel population in the Outback, numbering maybe around half a million head. These camels are considered a pest and invasive species (a concept a bit difficult to digest for us who try to save Rajasthan’s camel population)  and between 2009 and 2013 there was a government sponsored programme to try to eliminate the camel population by shooting the herds from helicopters – and leaving the carcasses to rot. Believe it or not, this A$ 19 million scheme was also justified with the need to mitigate climate gas emissions!

Now, according to Paddy, the environmental damage that the feral camels do is vastly exaggerated, mainly by the beef and sheep ranchers. I am sure they have their grievances, but – without having yet been to the outback – I am struck by the apparently amazing capacity of the camel to grow and flourish in such a hostile environment without any human inputs.  To me it seems that the Australian feral camels are amazingly efficient protein producers, and thus an asset in a food-insecure world. Isn’t it much better to produce animal protein for human consumption in this way, rather than in industrialized feedlots that cause huge pollution, require animals to be fed with antibiotics to keep them healthy and depend on vast monocultures of soybean and corn?

And mind you, it has been shown that camels emit less greenhouse gases than conventional ruminants, primarily because they need much less feed to produce protein. STRANGE that the animal science establishment that is so pre-occupied with “efficiency” of livestock has not latched on to this fact. But of course, it goes against the CULTURE of many people to consume camel meat instead of chicken or mutton, even if it makes utmost ecological sense.

In North America camels were also introduced but have not survived as a feral population. I have just come back from an amazing tour to California which was courtesy of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise and, as a budding camel dairy entrepreneur,  I used the oportunity to connect with the intriguing camel scene over there. The US has an emerging camel dairy industry, mainly to cater to autism patients, but also to health nuts, athletes, paleo-dieters, and sufferers of various diseases. My host  was  the lovely Christina Adams who pioneered the use of camel milk in the treatment of autism and is ne of the foremost authorities on this subject.

Together with Christina, I visited the Oasis Camel Dairy in Ramona run by a wonderful couple, Nancy and Gil Riegler, who own around 20 camels.

oasis-camel-dairy

Because of the complicated legal situation, they currently are not selling camel milk, but use it to produce an array of luxurious body care items, including soaps, lotions, lip chaps, bath bombs, etc. They have just developed a lipstick based on camel milk of which they generously gave me a few samples.

oasis-lotions
An array of camel milk based body care products on display at Oasis Camel Dairy.
milking-at-oasis
Milking at Oasis Camel Dairy.

Finally, I had an interesting conversation with Walid Abdul Wahab, the founder of Desert Farms,  who is applying his business mind to set up a global camel brand, sourcing camel milk from all over the world – not only from the US, but also Europe and Pakistan. He believes in camel milk powder which is of course much easier to handle as it stores almost indefinitely and can easily be shipped. But does camel milk powder have the same beneficial and therapeutic qualities as fresh camel milk? I am wondering about this and would like to see some research and data on the question. I am also wondering about the desirability of establishing one global brand for all. While its true that camel milk producers have problems marketing milk on their own, I will continue to dream of, and pursue, a diverse camel milk sector where each camel milk has its individual taste and speaks for its region, just like cheeses and wines do!

 

Registering Rajasthan’s Camel Herds: Laying the Foundation for Ethical Dairying

registering-dhungarrams-herd
Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) registering the herd of Dhungar Ram Raika

The news around camels in Rajasthan have been dismal over at least the last 15 years, with the population plummeting, the remaining camel herds suffering from neglect and no young people willing to enter the profession of camel herding.  Declaring the camel state animal in 2014 and the passing of the Rajasthan Camel Bill (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) in 2015 only added to the gloom and certainly did not achieve the intended effect of reversing the fates of camels and their breeders.

But now there is some light on the horizon! Two developments make me feel that, if everything comes together, the situation can be turned around and Rajasthan’s camel economy revived.  And maybe, maybe – I know this sounds highly ambitious – even a new model for ethical dairying developed: Milk production where the consumer knows where her milk comes from and is ensured that she purchases a pure and unadulterated product. Because you are what you eat, and it makes a difference whether your milk is produced by stall-fed animals fed on a diet of concentrate and milked for all their worth with the help of hormone injections or from animals that graze on biodiverse natural vegetation, let down their milk voluntarily and whose milk is “harvested” judiciously and with concern for the needs of the calves.

The first reason for my current optimism is that the demand for camel milk in India is on a steep rise, especially for the alleviation of autism and Diabetes. Camel milk has medicinal qualities for which consumers are willing to pay a premium and this creates a huge incentive for camel breeders to hang on to their herds or to even expand them. I have seen this happening in the last couple of months among the camel breeders that supply to the “Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy” that is run by Camel Charisma and bridges the divide between urban camel milk consumers and camel breeders roaming around in remote areas.

bhanwarlal-milk-bottle
“Last year, I thought I would have to give up camel herding, but now I am increasing my herd to produce camel milk” says Bhanwarlal Raika

But how to make sure the milk is from happy herded camels and not diluted cow or buffalo milk? Unfortunately there is still no field test available that can provide the answer. The only solution is to know exactly which herders the milk comes from and the number of milking camels they have. And to have the herders committed to provide genuine unadulterated camel milk and not a white fluid amalgamated from milk of other animals, water and other ingredients.

For this reason, Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) is currently engaged in registering all camel herds in a 50 km radius from Sadri and educating the owners about the real opportunity for the survival of their camels and their own livelihoods if they commit themselves to providing a genuine product.

Meeting the herders is a humbling experience, seeing how the old Raika philosophy of “first the camels, then us” is still alive, the hardships and hard work they perform to keep their camels healthy, how many farmers appreciate the manure that the camels deposit on their fields as organic fertilizer, how closely the herdsmen observe nature and the effect of camel browsing on the trees of the Aravalli Hills. One can feel how camels are a crucial part of the agro-ecological web whose disappearance would undermine both local food production and ecology.

But most satisfying of all is to see how there are still young Raika keen to herd and look after camels if only it provides a decent income.

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“I want to be a camel herder when I grow up” says the youngest son of Dhungar Ram

Diligent registration of herds is an absolute must for camel dairying to grow into an ethical and profitable business. Its also a must for the successful implementation of a just announced scheme by the Rajasthan government to provide a Rs 10,000 subsidy for all new camels born, in 3 instlments and over an 18 months period. This scheme can only succeed on the basis of proper herd registration, otherwise it will flounder and be abused as so often happens with well-intended schemes.

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Official announcement by Rajasthan government for a scheme to support breeders with Rs 10,000 for new born camels.

Both these developments – emergence of a market for a premium camel milk market and the subsidies for new-born camels – have the potential to provide a decisive boon to camel herders, both morally and financially. And if they would be embedded into a proper “Camel Policy” adopted and implemented by the Rajasthan, then we will be on the right track for conserving Rajasthan’s globally unique and ethical camel pastoralist system for the future!

How can you make the camel state animal without asking your livestock keepers how to protect it?

Quo vadis, camel of Rajasthan? Will it be good to be "state animal"?
Quo vadis, camel of Rajasthan? Will it be good to be “state animal”?

Ever since the government of Rajasthan has decided to make the camel state animal, the phones have been ringing non-stop. Its mostly journalists that want to get some insight information or opinion on this issue, or even enquire “what is the latest scandal concerning the camel, madam?”. Confusion is reigning supremely, as nobody seems to know what it means for the camel to be state animal. Is it going to be given the same protection as the peacock (India’s national bird) or the chinkara gazelle and black bucks whose hunting is severely punished with jail ? Or is it to get a status equivalent to that of the cow whose slaughter and trafficking across state borders is strictly prohibited? According to the media, the government is preparing just such an act, but nobody really seems to know the details – it is kept under tight wraps and everybody is guessing, including the people who are in the centre of this hullabaloo and on whose continued involvement everything depends: the camel breeders themselves.

The camel breeders are not amused. Not surprising with some headlines announcing that “camel safaris are likely to end“because of their animal now being “protected”.

“If the camel is state animal, this means that we are no longer the owners of our camels and that the government has appropriated them” is the fear of Amanaram, a well informed member of the camel breeding community who brings out a newspaper (Dewasi shreejayte) for his people. He had recently participated in a ‘dharna’ (sit in) staged by the Raika outside the Legislative Assembly in Jaipur to voice their concerns.

Amanaram Dewasi from the traditional Raika camel breeding community is wondering what it means if the camel becomes 'state animal'.
Amanaram Dewasi from the traditional Raika camel breeding community is wondering what it means if the camel becomes ‘state animal’.

While I assured him this would not be the case, I also remembered a newspaper article earlier this year, stating that the government was planning to patent camel milk, and nobody else would be able to sell it.

What a strange and weird idea! For one, camel milk as a natural product is not patentable. And even if it was, whom would it benefit if only the government could sell camel milk? It would be the final death knell for the camel in Rajasthan if the camel breeders could not even sell the milk of their camels. For this is where the future lies: only if a camel milk market is developed, will the camel survive outside zoos.

So far the details of the planned legislation have not been discussed in the current session of the Legislative Assembly, although this was expected. The government of Rajasthan now seems to be grappling with the question of what steps to take. Notably, it has not made any attempt to reach out to the camel breeders themselves and appears to depend for its advice on some bureaucrats sitting in Jaipur who have never gone near a camel, nor have an inkling about the problems of camel breeders.

Last week, representatives of Rajasthan’s two camel breeders’ associations and Hanwant Singh from Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) met with MLAs and made their suggestions on how to go about saving the camel. They met with much positive response. You can read the letter written to the Chief Minister by the camel breeders and by LPPS here.

I sincerely hope that this letter will be heeded – for everybody’s benefit – the camels’, their keepers’, the public and the government itself.

 

 

Earlier this

Its official: Camel is Rajasthan’s state animal!

Camel breeders are happy that the camel will receive protection, but are worried about te planned ban on moving camels across state borders

Camel breeders are happy that the camel will receive protection, but are worried about te planned ban on moving camels across state borders

Yesterday camel herders from both Maru and Godwar Raika communities met at Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan’s headquarters to discuss the implication of the planned ban on taking camels outside the state. They fear that this will undermine their livelihoods as even fewer buyers may come to the Pushkar Fair this year. Already sales have been very low in the last few years as demand for draught animals has declined. For more about the gist of the discussions, please see the press release of LPPS.

Later in the day, Rajasthan’s cabinet declared the camel as state animal, announcing a number of protection measures. But unless they help to generate income they will not solve the problem of declining camel numbers. Camels will only be kept if there are economic incentives to do so, as the case of Pakistan with its burgeoning camel population of one million head illustrates.

World Camel Day in Pakistan: Interesting Insights into Camel Conservation

bannerA few days ago I had the enormous pleasure to be hosted by Prof. Muhamed Younas, Chair of the Department of Livestock Management of the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad (Pakistan) for the celebration of World Camel Day on 22nd June. Initially conceived by my friend Dr. Abdul Raziq Kakar, a great camel researcher and currently dean at Lasbela Agricultural University, it was a grand event with dancing camels, scientific sessions and launch of the Dacha brand of camel milk.

Dancing camels are a typical part of the culture of the desert that straddles the border between India and Pakistan
Dancing camels are a typical part of the culture of the desert that straddles the border between India and Pakistan

My brief visit proved extremely instructive for in this country camel numbers are on the increase with the current population being estimated at one million head. This trend is in stark contrast to the situation in neighbouring India where camel numbers have dropped to around 200,000, according to inofficial sources – more than 50% in the last five years!

Why is the scenario in Pakistan so different from India, I asked myself and the reasons were not difficult to identify: Pakistan is a nation of meat eaters and the demand for camel meat is strong – I was told that if camel meat is available at any butcher’s shop, word spreads quickly and it is immediately sold out. Secondly, Pakistan exports a large number of dairy camels to the Gulf countries at very remunerative rates. Both situations generate lucrative income for camel breeders, creating incentives to keep breeeding camels. An interesting nugget of information was shared by Dr. Raziq: by means of a Biocultural Protocol (an approach promoted by my organisation LPP and by the LIFE Network for securing the assets of livestock keepers), the awareness of the camel breeding community in Cholistan was raised about the value of their genetic resources and they are now able to negotiate for much higher prices with the Arab buyers – ranging from 250,000 to even one million Pakistani Rupees. The sale of even one good dairy camel enables some of the previously poorest nomads to purchase a piece of land and totally transform their economic status.

While this is great, I find it extremely worrying that all the best dairy camel genetics are either ending up in the Gulf countries or becoming extinct in India. Why are there no serious efforts to develop the potential of camels in South Asia for food production locally and inproving the lot of some of the poorest people in rural areas? Of course, establishing the camel dairy industry in Dubai (such as Camelicious) and other countries in the area was a question of massive investment which was provided by the deep pockets of Arab potentates.  But couldn’t for instance the Indian government – or some of the larger donor and aid agencies – encourage and support public-private partnerships to get camel dairying going? The benefits accruing could be rather significant: it would place value on Indian camels that are currently wasting away because of neglect, absence of veterinary care, closure of grazing areas and, most importantly, lack of a market.  Such an approach would be vastly more promising than placing a ban on the export of camels from Rajasthan and India and prohibiting the slaughter of camels – the measures currently adopted by the Rajasthan government for saving the camel.

While the attention of Rajasthan’s government to the issue of camel decline is laudable, it would be well advised to look into fostering (social) entrepreneurial engagement in which camel breeders are the main stakeholders, but backed up by sound business strategies and complemented with supportive policies that ensure grazing for camels.

Creating a market for camel milk would be the most appropriate strategy for saving the camels of Rajasthan
Creating a market for camel milk would be the most appropriate strategy for saving the camels of Rajasthan