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!

 

 

 

 

Vegetarianism/veganism not an option for people living in non-arable areas!

Pastoralists rarely eat meat – usually only on special occssions – but dairy products are an essential part of their diets.

An article entitled Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers just published in Science magazine and widely broadcasted by The Guardian  and The Independent newspapers is making some  startling claims. For this monumental meta-study, the authors J. Poore and T. Nemecek compiled data from 38,700 farms in 119 countries and analysed the environmental footprint of  40 major food categories with regards to Greenhouse Gas emissions, land use, freshwater withdrawals, eutrophication and acidification. Their conclusion is that even the most benignly produced meat and dairy products have a far worse environmental impact than plant foods: ..” meat, aquaculture, eggs,and dairy use ~83% of the world’s farmland and contribute 56 to 58% of food’s different emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories” and recommend that “avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth”.

While the attention to the environmental impact of agriculture and food production is welcome, the conclusions are over-simplified, misleading in some aspects and very Western-centric.

This starts with the data that overwhelmingly derive  from North America, Brazil, Europe, China and Australia. As the map provided in the supplementary materials illustrates hardly any studies from the African and Asian drylands  have been included, reflecting the absence of Life Cycle Assessments from these countries. We can not blame this uneven data scenario on the authors, but it indicates that pastoralist systems were not included in the study.

Emphasizing that livestock provides just 18% of calories is totally misleading, since livestock is not kept to provide calories but to convert low quality feed into high quality proteins with essential amino acids that can not be sourced from plants.  Its akin to saying  there are 50 times more cars than trucks in the world but they only transport less than 2% of the goods.

Then there is the statement that livestock takes up  83% of farmland. The term “takes up” conjures up a situation where this land is exclusively used by livestock and not used for anything else. In reality, crops and livestock are largely integrated, as they should be. In addition,  large parts of the world are non-arable – they are too dry, too step, too cold, too hot to be able to be cultivated – but they can still used for food production by means of herding livestock.  Statistically these areas are classified as “permanent pastures” and are more than double the size than arable land. So its only logical that livestock can be found over a much larger part of the world than crops.

Most remarkably, the authors come to the conclusion that “without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world.”

To achieve a reduction of such magnitude, we would have to stop raising livestock in the non-arable areas mentioned. Neither the authors of the study nor the journalists seem to be aware that if you remove livestock from these regions, which include the vast drylands of Africa and Asia, as well as mountainous areas in Asia and parts of Latin America, the local populations will lose their livelihoods. In these so-called marginal areas  people have co-existed with and depended on livestock for millennia: reindeer herders in the tundra; yak herders in Asia’s high altitude zones; keepers of Bactrian camels and dromedaries in the deserts; nomads relying on cattle, sheep, and goats in the semi-arid steppes and savannahs.

If they are to stop livestock production, they will either starve or have to vacate the area. Thus such a blanket advisory to stop eating meat and dairy is an irresponsible recipe for disaster in already impoverished parts of the world and for people for whom livestock represents a much better survival option during the frequent  droughts than growing of crops.

Yes, the world as a whole needs to drastically reduce its consumption of livestock products, and every vegan or vegetarian in the Global North, Brazil and China is welcome. But nobody can extend that recommendation to the people whose livelihoods depend on livestock in the semi-arid and arid parts of the world! For this reason, I would really recommend that the authors of the study and the journalists formally retract that particular statement and reword their conclusions to include this particular caveat.

Even in Europe and North America we need to retain some livestock in the system, as it is crucial for the provision of organic manure and – through grazing – for the conservation of biodiversity.  Grazing is the most common nature conservation measure in Germany and its shepherds obtain the major income from such ‘environmental services’ rather than from the sale of products. As a new friend on Twitter, Ariel Greenwood who grazes cattle for conservation in California expressed it: We should limit consumption of animal products to those raised in an ecologically restorative way.

There is one statement by Joseph Poore that I totally agree with:  The large variability in environmental impact from different farms does present an opportunity for reducing the harm, without needing the global population to become vegan. If the most harmful half (my emphasis) of meat and dairy production was replaced by plant-based food, this still delivers about two-thirds of the benefits of getting rid of all meat and dairy production.

Can we agree which is the most harmful half of meat and dairy production?

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.

dsc_0592
“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.

rajasthan-camel-scheme-cropped
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!

Animal genetic resources and “Access and Benefit-Sharing”: not made for each other?

ITWG sign

During the eighth session of the Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources (ITWG-AnGR 8), the confusion of delegates about how to apply the concept of “Access and Benefit-Sharing” to animal genetic resources (AnGR) was palpable. Developed countries such as USA and Canada argued that nothing should interfere with the free flow of AnGR. Of course they have the interests of their genetics companies in mind. Developing countries such as Bolivia expressed their fear that the indiscriminate import of exotic breeds destroys their locally adapted ones. There is also the latent fear of biopiracy especially of climate resilient local breeds, although at a side-event by WIPO and FAO about the patent landscape in the livestock sector it was stated that there have been no patent applications on genetic material from any indigenous breeds.

Francois Pythoud from Switzerland argued for brainstorming the issues and “thinking out of the box”, but unfortunately nobody picked up the suggestion. LPP and LIFE Network tried to make the case for community protocols, but this elicited neither any response nor support despite a side-event on the previous day that sought to bring across the point  that locally adapted breeds are often low-input and high output. And that this can be made visible by means of the Community Protocols that feature importantly in the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing that recently entered into force.  Our side-event was chaired by Poland’s National Coordinator, Dr. Elzbieta Martyniuk and featured presentations by Elizabeth Katushabe of Uganda about community documentation of Ankole Longhorn Cattle, by Rao Abdul Qadeer from Pakistan about the significance of Pakistan’s genetic resources for the camel dairy industry in the Gulf countries and by Dr. Maria Rosa Lanari of Argentina on the low-input but high-output indigenous livestock production systems of Patagonia.

Rao Abdul Qadeer, Maria Rosa Lanari, Ilse Koehler-Rollefson, Elzbieta Martyniuk, Elizabeth Katushabe (left to right)
Trying to get across the value of locally evolved food production systems and adapted AnGR during an LPP/LIFE Network side-event at the ITWG-Angr 8 on 26th November: Rao Abdul Qadeer, Maria Rosa Lanari, Ilse Koehler-Rollefson, Elzbieta Martyniuk (chair), Elizabeth Katushabe (left to right)

In order to move forward, I think we really need to get back to the basics and remind ourselves of the rationale of Access and Benefit-Sharing in the first place: to provide positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Now, in the case of AnGr, it is quite clear that there is currently not much of a commercial interest in locally adapted AnGR because they do not really fit into the industrial systems for which the genetics companies work. On the other hand, it is just the spread of industrial systems that poses the danger to livestock biodiversity as they contribute to the destruction of native livestock based food production systems – which are often much more productive than is evident, or worse: which have never been documented and remained invisible.Thus the community protocols that are mandated by the Nagoya Protocol have an extremely important role to play in changing perceptions about local systems and providing at least moral support and empowerment to the local livestock keepers that continue to be the backbone of food production in many countries.

I have tried to explain this in a study, co-authored with Hartmut Meyer and published by the ABS Capacity Building Initiative and LPP, entitled Access and Benefit-Sharing of Animal Genetic Resources: using the Nagoya Protocol as a Framework for the Conservation and Sustainable use of Animal Genetic Resources and which can be downloaded here.

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

 

 

Make Cheese, not Mass!

munster cheese
Bargkass (mountain cheese), ripening in a cheese cellar in the Vosges in France

More! Faster! Cheaper! Mass production is the mantra of global livestock development as breeding companies create ever more productive genetics and farmers and countries are caught  in cut-throat competition worldwide. “Producing more with less” is also the guiding principle of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL), a multistakeholder platform that seeks to make livestock production more sustainable, both environmentally and socially.

The spiraling pressure has not been good to livestock producers. Exhorted to “grow or go”, they need to invest heavily in infrastructure and additional animals if they want to stay in business. They get caught up to the hilt in debt, as my colleague Evelyn Mathias has shown in her study “Livestock out of balance. From asset to liability in the course of the Livestock Revolution?“. In all developed countries the number of farmers that can make a living from livestock has plummeted precipitously and this is being repeated in the emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, Thailand, and India, as well as Eastern European countries that have recently joined the European Union. Its a trend that does not forebode well for the sustainability of the livestock sector as holdings become ever bigger leading to huge problems with manure recycling, public health and animal welfare, besides abandoned rural areas.

Yet its still possible to buck the trend and make a decent living from keeping a small number of animals which do not even need to be “highly productive” in the conventional sense, and even enjoy doing so!  The secret is to make cheese. This is the lesson learnt during a recent whirlwind tour to artisanal cheese makers in three European countries originally inspired by the desire to test whether cheese making would be an option for processing camel milk in Rajasthan.

Our first stop was Robert Paget in Lower Austria who produces camembert and mozzarella from about 30 goats and a dozen buffaloes. Robert started out more than 30 years ago with a single goat and believes in growing in quality rather than in quantity. He has a long waiting list of customers – both individuals and gourmet shops – who have to order their cheese quite sometime ahead. Robert covers almost the entire value chain, although he rents the land that produces the fodder for his herds. He has help to milk, but makes and sells the cheese entirely on is own and still finds time to share his knowledge in cheese making courses at home and abroad and supporting the local Slow Food movement.

Robert Paget of Bufala-Connection explaining the intricacies of gourmet cheese making
Robert Paget of Bufala-Connection explaining the intricacies of gourmet cheese making

The next stop on our tour was Northern Italy where we had the pleasure to meet Alessandro a very young man in his early twenties who has embarked on a cheese making career. Alessandro is crazy about his goats and he loves what he is doing – the only downer being the inordinate amount of bureaucracy he has to put up with.

Alex goat hugger
Alessandro Breda in a village near Bergamo (Northern Italy) hugging the goats that are the basis for his cheese making enterprise

Over the span of a few years and with small investment he has built up a faithful clientele for his cheese which he is crafting with the help of his mother in a tiny production unit in his parents’ garden. His enthusiasm – and his lovingly hand crafted cheeses – are absolutely enthralling.

Another interesting experience was waiting for us in the Alsace region of France at the Pensées Sauvages farm of the Baumann family in Linthal. “Pensées sauvages” has the double meaning of wild pansies and wild thoughts which I found very appropriate, as the Baumanns keeps about 30 cows of the Vosges breed which have average milk yields of just above 3000 l. In the European context where dairy farmers usually need well over a hundred high performance cows to make a living, such figures indeed seem to be a wild idea. But here two generations lived well from this enterprise that creates premium organic Munster cheese, a local specialty that is protected by an Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC), a French type of Geographical Indication and can be made only from milk produced in the high meadows of the Vosges.

 

The Vosges cattle, a once highly threatened local breed, that produces the milk for Munster cheese
The Vosges cattle, a once highly threatened local breed, that produces the milk for Munster cheese

Here too there were two generations absolutely loving what they were doing and producing high quality food with happy animals – in a way that seemed against the odds.

Tow generations of the Baumann family enjoy making specialty Munster cheese
Two generations of the Baumann family enjoy making specialty Munster cheese

Some observations:

All three cheese makers were first generation farmers coming from a non-farming background.

All of them seemed to be doing well – their secret being to have built up their own value chains and being in control over it  – starting with the feed or access to grazing land to the  sale of the premium products.

There did not seem to be a downside – except of course hard work every day of the year. But everybody benefitted: landscape, animals, farmers, quality of food and consumers.

More support – and less bureaucracy – for such kind of enterprises would go a long way towards making the livestock sector more sustainable. In Europe it would enable more people to come back from the cities and revitalize the rural areas. In developing countries  this could be a model for generating rural income opportunities and curbing high unemployment rates.

We are convinced of the potential of cheese making – the only question is whether it will work with camel milk in Rajasthan!

 

 

Camels make people happy….

While unfortunately not many people seem to care about the rapid vanishing of the camel from Rajasthan’s drylands, the women below certainly do: Their livelihoods depend on it.  These women from a village in Jaisalmer district are members of a spinning group that turns camel wool into yarn. The hand spun yarn is subsequently processed into stoles and rugs – and possibly many other specialty items in the future as well.

whats in there
What’s in those sacks and why are these women in an isolated village in the Thar desert so happy? Well, the sacks are filled with spun camel wool and they have just been paid for their work.

Three of them are widows – recognizable from their red gowns and the absence of any jewelry. The number of widows is high in the desert, partly because very young women are often married to rather old men. Widows usually don’t have much too laugh about, as they are totally home bound and dependent on their husband’s relatives for their upkeep (although they are entitled to a small government pension).

IMG_0653
Hand-spinning the camel wool with the traditional cherka can be done at home and at leisure.

Spinning the wool with old-fashioned spinning wheels is an activity that can be done in a group and in the confines of one’s home, so it is an ideal occupation.And it creates precious income that the women can control themselves and that empowers them. Although empowerment is relative and will take some time. After all, in some of the villages in the Thar desert, killing of the girl child allegedly is still practiced, although many well-meaning NGOs have tried to stop it.

camel wool comes in a range of different colours and lends itself to "naturally dyed" home furniture items.
Camel wool comes in a range of different colours and lends itself to “naturally dyed” textiles.

But the spinning women are not the only ones that benefit from the camel. The next step in the value chain is the weaver who uses an old and self fashioned groundloom to spin the yearn into dhurries (rugs).

DSC_0016
This is weaver Maga Ram – who suddenly has a lot more work to do, due to the revival of interest in camel wool.
desert pads
These are the “desert pads” that Magaram is weaving – a modern adaptation of the traditional “baql”, the camel wool rugs that the camel nomads carry with them and that they unroll whenever guests are coming.
shearing compressed
Its shearing time! Shearing – which happens at the transition from the cold season to the hot season – is good for camels and keeps them healthy. This picture should have been first, because its a the beginning of the value chain. But this time I wanted to start the story with the women who demonstrate the number of people that can benefit from value addition activities to neglected animal genetic resources.

This if of course only one of the possible value chains based on camel raw materials. Camels, especially the babies and young animals also have very soft fibre that can be made into stoles. Other options are a range of dairy products, soap from camel milk, and the unique and bio-diverse desert paper, made from cellulose pre-processed by our desert friends.

desert paper
This is desert paper, made from 36 desert trees and shrubs, with a little help from our friends.

Well, all this may seem a little far fetched to livestock experts who have been promoting quantity over quality, leading to the decline of many of India’s local livestock breeds. But we take heart from a recent survey about present and future trends in the fresh food chain in the Netherlands that my colleague Katrien van t’Hooft from Dutch Farm Experiences has been drawing attention to in her blog: The market for niche products is rapidly growing, and this will actually be the main trend in the near future!

Rescuing a drought resistant sheep breed

Boti sheep - tubular ears
Short tubular ears, a black head and fine carpet wool are characteristic for the Boti sheep – a breed that has never been officially recognized.

Locally adapted livestock breeds are a key resource for adapting to climate change. This is brought home by a recently initiated action research project of Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan (LPPS) that documents and seeks to save an as yet unregistered sheep breed from the Godwar area in Rajasthan. This is the Boti sheep which is distinguishable by its small tubular ears and black head, as well as its lustrous carpet wool. This breed was described already about ten years ago by a Dutch researcher, Ellen Geerlings, who noted that it was gradually being replaced by another breed, the Bhagli sheep, which grows much faster and is therefore more profitable for meat production. The present survey, supported through the FAO’s funding strategy for the implementation of the Global Plan of Action on Animal Genetic Resources is coming just in time: it is hard to find any original Boti sheep at all, as herders have generally been using Bhagli rams. The breed is literally at the verge of extinction.

Explaining advantages of Boti sheep
Explaining the advantages of the Boti sheep makes Raika herders realise what they are about to loose: a breed that can cope with both disease and climate extremes – be it drought or floods.

However, in conversations with the Raika shepherds, they remember very well the advantages of the Boti sheep especially in terms of drought and disease resistance. They emphasize that the Boti breed can endure pain and even if it suffers from Foot and Mouth Disease or has a thorn in its foot, it will continue walking on three legs, while the Bhagli sheep lies down and dies. The Boti can also cope well with rains and water in its pen, whereas Bhagli requires dry ground or will get sick. The ewes of the breed have a very long life span, giving up to 10 lambs.

Just by talking about these matters, the shepherds seem to start reconsidering their preference for the Bhagli and express the need to again use a Boti ram (which are however now very difficult to find) for improving disease resistance and drought-proofing their flock. When the possibility is raised that they might receive a higher price for the wool, then they get really interested. Wool prices have been so low that they did not even cover the costs of shearing in recent years. However, through the development of niche markets, for instance by creating rugs that contain both Boti wool and “Desert wool” from the local camels, it will hopefully be possible to create financial incentives for keeping Boti sheep.

So, although the initial results of the survey were depressing, it now looks much more hopeful. Value addition is the way to go for saving  breeds and creating high value livestock products that appeal to the discerning customer. My next blog will be about our efforts to develop innovative camel products and how this is benefitting women and “poor” people in the Thar desert.

weighing Boti sheep
LPPS staff Khetaram Raika weighing the rare Boti sheep – to try to establish breed descriptors.