Somalis, droughts, and women power: Impressions from Kenya’s thriving camel sector

Not suffering from the current drought: Camels in perfect hump near Isiolo

Not suffering from the current drought: Camels in perfect hump near Isiolo

Kenya’s camel population has been sky-rocketing in recent decades – from less than one million around the turn of the millennium to an estimated 3.1 million currently. So what’s the secret? Why does the Kenyan situation differ from that in India where camel numbers continue to plummet  – despite protection as state animal of Rajasthan and the rescue efforts of animal welfare people?  My partner in camel affairs, Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of Indian camel support organization LPPS, and I travelled to Kenya to find out.

We had the good fortune of being hosted by Anne Bruntse, a Danish agronomist who has been residing in Kenya since 34 years, and is a pioneer in camel cheese making.  (Her feta, halloumi, and cream cheeses made from the milk of the Kumbhalgarh camels were a hit with Delhiwalas and connoisseurs during the Living Lightly exhibition about pastoralists in India last year). Anne lives on a farm in Gilgil in the Rift Valley and for many years was running a cow dairy and cheese making unit before taking a scientific approach to camel cheese making with a camel-specific rennet invented by the Danish company Chr. Hansen.

Our first port of call was the Anolei women’s cooperative in Isiolo, a crowded town of mostly Somali residents, about 235 km north of Nairobi.

Anolei women cooperative run by Somali women in Isiolo

Anolei women cooperative run by Somali women in Isiolo

Somalis are gluttons for camel milk, their whole culture traditionally revolved around the camel, and camel milk is important for their well-being. The Somali women that formed the Anolei cooperative turn over about 3000 liters per day. The crux of the system is the clan system. Somalis sell camel milk only to their clan members and the collective is the link between rural producers and urban consumers. The cooperative organizes the transport to Nairobi and, with the help of donors, has obtained a chilling tank where the milk is cooled down before onward transportation by bus. This makes a big difference to the quality of the milk. The Anolei women also own a pasteurization and filling unit which they are awaiting to operationalize as soon as they receive the necessary certification from the authorities. And, chair woman Sofia Kulow was really excited to share that the cooperative would soon have its own chilling truck to take the milk to Nairobi.


The milk containers are marked with the symbols of their owners

Women are in total control of milk turn-over

Women are in total control of milk turn-over










A similar set-up exists in Garissa, another Somali stronghold.  Setting up a chilling facility combined with training in hygienic milk collection enormously increased the availability of good quality of camel milk and thereby the demand for it. Local demand by the Somalis is so high that no milk is left over for export to Nairobi!

This is not the only case of camels serving to empower women in Kenya. Laura Llemeneite who has lived among the Samburu tribe for more than 20  years tells the story of how the originally cattle keeping Samburu have been switching to camel keeping in recent decades. Because of a series of droughts as well as climate change, cows are no longer providing enough milk or need to be herded to very distant locations for grazing and can no longer provide milk in the settlements. For the sake of food security, development agencies have been supporting the adoption of camels and distributed over a thousand heifer camels to Samburu women groups.

This has resulted in Samburu women becoming livestock owners for the first time, a change that has considerably strengthened their status in the community. According to Laura,  this has led to more eye level marriages, and while the men initially had difficulties accepting that women would attend meetings, they now often even offer to do the cooking so this can happen!

Near Rumuruti we visit Amanda and John Perrett who farm 200 camels on Ol Maisor, a large ranch.  Amanda’s father, Jasper Evans, a camel aficionado and visionary established a camel herd in the 1980s, seeing the advantage of combining them with cattle herds to intensify land use: camels and cattle utilize different types of vegetation. In the 1990s, Ol Maisor became a hub of applied research and  Jasper also had the foresight to import 60 or so high yielding dairy camels from Pakistan, keeping detailed records about their reproduction, health and veterinary treatments for more than twenty year. This tradition is faithfully continued by Amanda.

Two important actors in Kenya's camel scene: Anne Bruntse (l) and Amanda Perrett

Two important actors in Kenya’s camel scene: Anne Bruntse (l) and Amanda Perrett

Rumuruti is at the southern end of Laikipia district, a place much in the news these days because of conflicts between predominantly white ranchers and conservationists and Samburu or Pokot herders desperate for grazing, with politicians also taking advantage of this situation. So there are security concerns and the camel safaris that were once a major source of income are currently down.

So what is the difference between Kenya and India?

  1. There is a large Somali community for whom camel milk is an essential food that they don’t seem to be able to do without. Thus there is a significant market for camel milk, providing economic incentives for breeding camels..
  2. Development organizations have been supporting transition from cattle to camel as a means of drought resilience and climate change adaptation.
  3. There has been sustained investment in applied camel research and, more recently, in setting up of cool chains to move camel milk from rural to urban areas.
  4. Women are important actors, including the Somali dairy entrepreneurs, the Samburu household managers, Amanda Perrett, and Anne Bruntse who has not only developed cheese but taught endless courses in hygienic milk collection and processing.

Can some of these approaches be transferred to India? Well, India probably does not have much of a Somali population and thereby an in-built demand for camel milk. On the other hand, people with diseases that can benefit from camel milk (such as autism and diabetes) are numerous there. While switching from cattle to camel is not likely to happen, it is absolutely essential and urgent to invest in the cool chains that link producers with consumers. And an effort should be made to involve women from camel breeding communities. While Indian pastoralist women traditionally have not had much to do with camels (except when going on migration), they have always played the role of “family finance ministers” and may have more of the business sense and attention to detail (hygiene) that are prerequisites for getting India’s camel dairy sector going!


Posted in Allgemein | Leave a comment

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 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.


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.


An array of camel milk based body care products on display at Oasis Camel Dairy.


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!


Posted in Allgemein, camel, food security | 3 Comments

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


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.


“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.


“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.


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!

Posted in Allgemein, animal genetic resources, animal welfare, Biodiversity, camel, food security, Sustainability | 6 Comments

Pigs, Power and Profit: Reading Pig tales by Barry Estabrook

A happy pig from Papua New-Guinea

A happy pig from Papua New-Guinea

Spending most of my time with pastoralists, I don’t often have to do with pigs, although there are exceptions. I had the good fortune to meet the pig nomads of Odisha due to my friend Dr. Balaram Sahu who runs a pathe pathshala (moving university for livestock keepers) and has written a booklet entitled Pigs: The Protein Pot of the Poor. And I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the pig culture of Papua New Guinea thanks to the invitation of Dr. Workneh Ayalew who headed the country’s National Research Institute on Agriculture in Lae until recently.


Nomadic pig herd in Odisha (India) grazing on harvested rice fields

But I am also a member of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock, a multi-stakeholder initiative managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that is doing its level best to create momentum for practice change to make the livestock sector more sustainable. The rationale of GASL is that the livestock sector has problems but also great potential to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

So it was with great interest I picked up a book  entitled Pig Tales by Barry Estabrook to learn about the situation in the US pig sector. In a captivating introduction three “tribes” of pigs are distinguished: feral pigs, those kept in industrial systems, and a small minority raised by farmers  exemplifying an alternative to the industrial model. In the second part, we learn about research on the “the nature of the beast”, for instance by Candace Croney who heads the Center for Animal Welfare Research at Purdue University. Pigs are extremely intelligent, easily learning how to work with computers and use joysticks, are able to recognize symbols, and even are self-aware. Other studies provide evidence that pigs living in an enriched environment and being treated nicely have better health, bigger litter sizes and higher growth rates. Alas, such crucial research has come to a halt because it was funded by the industry which concluded that it does nothing to improve their bottomline.

The power of the pork industry is indeed the most shocking revelation of this book. As described in a large number of examples its protagonists can ignore and violate laws with impunity, and influence legislation, so it has been impossible to stop the use of antibiotics . Workers rights are worse then when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. Yet, consumers are not entirely powerless as recent pledges by major stakeholders to not use products from sows kept in crates and chickens in cages.

The final chapters of the book show that alternatives are possible in which farmers make a reasonable income, pigs live a happy life without confinement, antibiotic use is restricted to therapeutic indications, and consumers enjoy  a tastier and healthier pork chop. These are win-win situations that should be supported with appropriate policies so that they can capture a higher share of the market.

This book is an eye opener that one can hardly put down, although I skipped a few pages in which the gory details of error prone assembly line slaughter are described.

It re-inforces my sceptical view about using “efficiency” as yardstick for judging and improving livestock systems. Unfortunately, livestock efficiency as currently defined, more often than not occurs at the expense of animal welfare, workers’ rights, farmers’ profits and consumers’ health and tastebuds. And it makes me believe even stronger in the urgency for developing countries to NOT follow the “western model” of livestock development depending on exotic genetics and imported feed, but instead carve out their own farmer/pastoralist centered approach building on local breeds and available biomass.

To me it feels ominous that the largest American pork processor Smithfield is owned by a Chinese company that renamed itself W.H. Group and is registered in the Cayman Islands for tax purposes. Such concentration of transnational control and power can not be healthy for the planet, despite the best efforts of the company to project a responsible image. Do read Barry Estabrook’s book!

Posted in Allgemein, animal genetic resources, animal welfare, GASL, ILRI, pigs, research, Sustainability | Leave a comment

Love of Bulls in Tamil Nadu

One of the Kangayam cows conserved at the Sivasenaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation

One of the Kangayam cows conserved at the Sivasenaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation

India is famous for its veneration of the cow as Gau-mata (although with the recent rise of Gau-Rakshaks, self-appointed cow protectors, it is also in danger of becoming somewhat infamous in this respect). That is also has a very ancient bull-culture is much less known. The last couple of days I have been spending in bull country, in Tamil Nadu, surrounded by passionate supporters of  Jallikattu, the Indian response to bull-fighting as practiced in Spain, but which is more correctly described as “bull-embracing”. Its a practice that dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization, some 4000 years ago, as indicated by ancient seals showing bulls that throw people into the air.  Jallikattu is entirely different from the Spanish version. Basically, village boys attempt to embrace the hump of a bull during a 15 m run. If they manage to do this, they are given a reward by the bull owner who gains prestige from having a bull too ferocious to allow this to happen. The sport was and is enormously popular, and the bull is never harmed, in fact if just one drop of blood the event is immediately stopped.


I am staying once again  at the Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation (SKCRF) in Kuttapalayam in Erode helping them to put together a Biocultural Protocol for the Kangayam cattle breed. The Kangayam cattle, a medium sized draught breed usually of white or grey colour, once was – and continues to be to an extent – the backbone of the local agro-ecology. Every farming family owned a pair of them for ploughing, pulling water, hauling the harvest, and powering carts for personal transportation. This cattle was raised on privately owned pastureland, the Korangadu, a very bio-diverse and extremely drought resistant sylvo-pastoral system. The Kangayam cattle was also essential for rituals and in religious life. Each village had a temple bull that provided free stud services. During Pongal, a Tamil harvest festival, the cattle was elaborately decorated and, on other occasions, bullock cart races known as Rekhla provided entertainment to and prestige to the owners of the winning bullock pairs.

But, like many local livestock breeds, the Kangayam cattle is now under threat, due to a number of factors such as a change in the farming system, availability of motorized transport, and the loss of Korangadu pastureland, mostly due to its high  real estate value.

The SKCRF is at the forefront of conserving the breed, keeping a herd of about 40 animals, educating farmers about the use of organic manure, organising competitions and fairs, and raising awareness of students and the general public about the Kangayam cattle. Sadly there is practically no government support for these efforts, even though India is a signatory to the Interlaken Declaration and the Global Plan of Action on Animal Genetic Resources.  While the country can boast a well-staffed and well-funded National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources,  this institute is oriented at research rather than practical conservation. And although there are various government conservation programmes with huge budgets they do not benefit the people at the grassroots who actively conserve by looking after livestock even if it is unprofitable.

Grassroots people who are taking care of threatened breeds do not benefit from existing conservation programmes

Grassroots people who are taking care of threatened breeds do not benefit from existing conservation programmes

Furthermore, there seems to be no awareness among decision makers that indigenous breeds cannot be dissociated from their respective agro-ecosystems, in this case the Korangadu pastureland, and neither can be conserved without the other.

But the biggest ire of the cattle aficionados I met is the ban on jallikattu and rekhla precipitated by the animal welfare movement that has pronounced these traditional “biocultural” sports as cruel to animals. This means that one of the last remaining incentives of breeding Kangayam cattle has evaporated and that there is harly any utility for male animals besides slaughter. The ban has had enormous repercussions on the rural economy, as was explained to me in detail by Mr. Balaram Sonu, a photographer, animal lover, and author of the book Cursed Heaven  that develops a conspiracy theory for the motivation of the animal welfare people against jallikattu.

The legal tussle around the ban on cattle sports is on-going and I don’t want to go into the political ramifications. But I was told that about 90% of Tamilians are in favour of retaining these sports. Certainly they play a huge role on the conservation of India’s indigenous cattle breeds, and should there be any harm to animals involved, then they should be regulated, rather than banned.

On 18th of September, the SKCRF and Kangayam cattle breeders are hosting a huge cattle show in Erode. Besides the wonderful cattle, you will be able to encounter the famous singer Hiphop Tamizha who will be honoured by the organizersfor his music video Takkaru Takkaru in support of Jallikattu that has garnered 2.7 million hits on Youtube. ENJOY!

Posted in Allgemein, animal genetic resources, animal welfare, Biodiversity, FAO | 7 Comments

How can livestock become sustainable? Impressions from the 6th Meeting of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock

Panama Canal Authority

The Panama Canal Authority is working with beef cattle raising Campesinos to protect the Panama Canal watershed.

The 6th meeting of the Multistakeholder Partnership of the Global Agenda for Sustanbale Livestock took place in Panama from 20-23 June, just before the new locks of the Panama Canal were inaugurated.

On the surface, the two events may not appear to have much of a connection. But, for one, there is an urgent need for protecting the Panama Canal’s watershed area through extensive livestock keeping. Secondly, the new expansion is critical for U.S. soybean exports to Asia. About a quarter of the average  4 billion-bushel U.S. harvest is transported on the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, from where some of it is destined for Europe and Africa while around 600 million bushels will pass through the Panama Canal en route to Asia, especially Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, and Korea.

The new Panama Canal extension allowing passages of much larger ships will make the transfer of livestock feed considerably more efficient, and “improving efficiency” is one of the key tenets of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL), which basically is a long-term follow-up to Livestock’s Long Shadow, the seminal first comprehensive analysis of livestock’s environmental impacts published by FAO in 2006. GASL was initiated in 2011 in Brasilia and is a concerted effort to involve all stakeholders (including government, research, social movements, NGOs, international organizations and the private sector) in constructive dialogue and arrive at a “consensus” about how the livestock sector can become more sustainable.

While the priorities and opinons of the different groups obviously vary (I personally believe that the focus on improving “livestock efficiency” is only a small part of the solution, if any) , the meetings provide a great and very valuable opportunity for understanding each other’s perspectives as well as to get exposure to different livestock production systems. At this meeting the focus was on showing the connection between livestock and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is certainly a very timely and appropriate endeavour.

But the most interesting and thought provoking information was presented in the parallel sessions. Most fascinating  was a paper presented by Pablo Manzano, currently an independent consultant adscribed to the IUCN commissions, who drew attention to the fact that the greenhouse gas emissions of wild herbivores once exceeded those of current domestic ruminant populations. Another paper by Pablo Peri of INTA in Argentina dwelled on the potential of Silvo-Pastoralist Systems as an animal-friendly, climate change mitigating alternative to the rapid expansion of soybean cultivation in Argentina – a process that is destroying native forests, biodiversity and local livelihoods. Then there was the presentation by Elizabeth Katushabe, Ankole cattle breeder from Uganda and fellow member of LIFE Network International  in which she showed the draw-backs for farmers and the environment of the transition from local cattle to Holstein-Friesian cows for dairy production.

Interesting also the fieldtrip to the watershed area of the Panama Canal where campesinos are being incentivized by the Panama Canal Authority to keep forest standing and utilize sustainable land use practices in order to prevent soil erosion .

Campesino cow

“Indian” or “Indian origin” cow kept for beef production in the Panama Canal Watershed

I was especially impressed how the Indian origin Zebu cows were thriving in the Panamanian jungle and how happy and well-fed they looked by comparison with many (but of course not all) of their Indian relatives, despite being kept for beef production!

Uplifting also the participation of pastoralists and the attention that is given to the subject of pastoralism, as reflected in the number of best practice notes that were published for the occassion by the Action Network on “Restoring Value to Grasslands”, including one based on our experiences with the social institutions upholding sheep pastoralism in Rajasthan.

In conclusion, its important that such global meetings around livestock continue to take place and we hope that GASL will get the necessary support from FAO Headquarters that it deserves!









Posted in Allgemein, FAO, Sustainability | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Listening to Camel Breeders in Iran

camels elikai comp

Young nomads in Elikai

“Our camel culture has totally changed“, laments Mr. Muhammed Rabii with a wistful hint of a smile. “We never ate camel meat earlier and my father refused to take it until the end of his days. We believed to kill a camel would make a person cruel. And we never used camel wool to weave rugs, only garments, because we thought it disrespectful to the camel to step on its hairs with our feet. But now camel breeding is all about meat production.”

Mr. Rabii, a tall and gaunt man in his fifties with a gentle but somewhat resigned demeanour is from the Torud camel breeding tribe.  We are sitting under the shade of a big tree in Chojaam,  a crumbling complex of mudbrick buildings in the middle of the desert in Iran’s Semnan Province. It’s an abandoned caravanserai from the times in which the camel was the only means of transportation, trade and communication over long distances. Now only a couple of rooms are used by three camel herders for sleeping and cooking. But in front of it is a huge water tank, almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It is filled to the brim with fresh water channeled to it from a nearby mountain range through qanats, Iran’s traditional covered irrigation system.

The pool is the watering point for about three thousand camels owned by 30 families of Mr. Rabii’s clan. The animals roam around the desert feeding on thorny low shrubs and return for drinking in 2-3 day intervals. Most of the people of the Torud tribe live in the town of Torud, about 30 km away. But they take turns managing the camels. “All Torud people are camel breeders”, Mr.  Hassan Ameri, one of the three herders currently on rotational duty tells us.  “Our families used to have more than 7000 camels. The numbers have decreased, but they still provide us with our basic livelihoods – enough to live on, although not enough for any extras or luxuries”. Then he adds “Soon I will sell ten camels to pay for my son’s wedding”.

When I ask how the importance of the camel has changed, Mr. Rabii breaks into a philosophic homily. “Before, the camel was everywhere and essential in all aspects of life. We needed it for the transportation of goods, for bringing the bride, and as an ambulance. It was involved in every celebration. When a caravan started, the camels were decorated elaborately and it was a time of excitement and happiness. The wool of the camel was used to make the aba (cloak) of the clergy. In the Koran, the camel is the only animal is put on the same level with humans. But since the car came, all this changed.

The current camel breeding system is minimum input. The camels feed themselves, cursorily supervised by a young man on a motorbike who tries to prevent them from harm on the highway to Torud and from being attacked by cheetahs and wolves, but with limited success. The losses due to accidents and predation are significant. But apart from these dangers it’s an ideal area for camels that thrive in the hot and dry climate.  Once a year, the young male camels are caught and sold to the meat markets in Teheran, Semnan and elsewhere. In Iran, there is a lot of demand for camel meat which sells as the same price or higher as lamb, for 10,000 Toman (about 3 USD) per kg liveweight.

The camel breeders proudly point out that they do not fatten their camels with processed chicken manure as has become a wide-spread practice in Iran. Mr. Rabii strongly disapproves of such methods, emphasizing that camels need to roam around freely and are an essential part of the desert eco-system. Sitting down next to a prickly camel thorn he explains how the camels are pruning the dried parts of the plant and thereby stimulating it to branch out. He also points at places where camels have urinated and says that this is where new shrubs will germinate as soon as a few drops of rain will fall.

camels in Torut

Camels in Torut

The traditional knowledge of Mr. Rabii and his camel breeding colleagues – result of astute observations on the relationship between camels and plants over generations –  is supported by bona fide scientific research. Already in the 1960s, zoologist Hilde Gauthier Pilters studied the ecology of camels in the Sahara and, in a book published by the University of Chicago Press, came to the conclusion that their grazing behavior does not cause damage to desert vegetation, but instead nurtures the growth of its plants.

This knowledge does not seem to have filtered through to bureaucrats and officials sitting in government offices and deciding over rangeland policies. About 200 km north of Torud, close to Firuzkot, we visit the summer camp of three nomadic families from the Elikai tribe. They are  shepherds but also keep a herd of about 40 camels – in excellent fettle, with bulky humps and no trace of mange, the parasitic skin disease that is the scourge of more humid camel breeding areas.  Most of them are only half tamed, but one of them behaves more like a favourite pet than a farm animal, placidly allowing everybody to sit and pose on it.

The family seats us in their tattered army type tent which is surprisingly comfortable inside, the floor covered with rugs and big cushions to lean on, then ply us with glasses of tea served on a silver tablet and freshly baked flat bread still warm from the stove. Nobody is more hospitable than nomads living in isolated areas.

Two of the men, with sparkling eyes in their weather beaten faces, talk expansively about their camels and their affection for them. “We have seen others who have sold their camels, but they are not any happier than we are – on the contrary”, they say. “ But the Ministry of Forest, Rangelands and Watershed is telling us to stop keeping them. The officials say that camels are destructive to the rangeland vegetation.”

“Camels are very clever animals and they are the owners of the pasture. So they do not destroy anything as long as they can move around. They take only one or two bites, and then move on. In fact, now that there are fewer camels, the balance of the rangelands is being destroyed. The camel thorn has grown so high that the sheep can no longer eat it. And tamarisks die if they are not browsed upon.”

“They even tell us that we should sell our camels and that they will bring in camels from Australia. But good will that do? Already large numbers of camels are smuggled into the country for slaughter from India and Pakistan. This is dangerous, as they pass through our territories and bring in diseases.”

At a meeting of UNICAMEL, an association of camel herders from all over Iran, that is held in Azerbaijan,  in the far northwest of Iran, I gain more insight into the minds of the bureaucrats that decide on rangeland policies. The meeting is hosted by the Shahsevan tribal confederacy, Turkish speaking nomads who herd sheep and traditionally used two-humped Bactrian camels to transport their belongings on the migration between summering and wintering grounds. It is organized with the help of CENESTA, an Iranian NGO that has a long history of supporting Iran’s 600 nomadic tribes – organized in 100 tribal confederacies – in various ways. The get-together takes place in an encampment, an oba, perched on a slope with a magnificent view of the snow-covered volcanic Mount Savelan.

Members of UNICAMEL from all four corners of Iran hold forth about their woes, and officials from various government departments give speeches, with often vastly divergent views. I learn that as most of Iran is covered by deserts and steppes in which crops cannot be grown, nomadism has always been an important, even predominant way of life. Besides being providers of meat and dairy products, they made major contributions to its arts and crafts, notably its rug and carpet making traditions.

Unfortunately, under the Pahlevis, the dynasty that took over Iran at the beginning of the 20th century, the nomads were considered a threat. In the 1960s, the Shah declared the rangelands property of the state and the nomads were forcefully settled. While almost all policies were changed after the Iranian Revolution in 1978, the rangeland policy remained the same and until today bureaucrats decide about the dates on which nomads can move between their summer and winter pastures.

Iranian officials may want to keep camels off the range but, at the same time, they are eager to increase camel meat supply. Three years ago the government imported ten Bactrian male camels from China to cross them with the local one-humped camels because the hybrids reach significantly higher body size. Now they are planning to bring in 300 more in a swap for oil. Due to the embargo on Iran, the Chinese have not been able to pay for the oil they have obtained from Iran and instead sent compensation in kind, including camels.

The nomads also reported that large numbers of camels were being brought into the country from India – and that huge herds passed through their territories en route to slaughterhouses in Teheran. While Iranian officials did not confirm this, the nomads emphasized that such things could not happen without government connivance. They actually confirmed what I had heard earlier from reliable sources in Pakistan and India: large numbers of camels cross the Indo-Pakistan border in Kutch in Gujarat to reach their final destination in slaughter houses in Iran. This happens although this part of the Indo-Pakistan border is supposed to be sealed by a strong fence and although the camel was recently declared state animal with its export and slaughter banned in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

Disregard for nomads and their way of raising livestock is not limited to Iran, but similar thinking prevails in many countries. In China, Tibetan nomads are forcefully settled in order to protect the rangelands, leading to their economic destitution and dependence on hand-outs from the government. In India, camel nomads are systematically excluded from their summer grazing grounds in forests, while at the same time not being allowed to either sell their milk nor dispose of them for meat.

It is difficult to understand what is behind the contradictory policies of Asian countries versus the camels, and nomads in general. Why would Iran bring in camels from Australia instead of supporting its own camel breeders? Why does China sedentarize Tibetan nomads for “environmental protection” when nomadism is recognized as a means of conserving nature elsewhere? How can Rajasthan expect to save the camel when neither its products can be sold nor  a place for camels to graze?  Sometimes I wonder whether this is just incompetence or an intentional effort to promote industrial livestock production.

Nevertheless, Happy Camel Day 2016, and many thanks to its active promoters, especially Dr. Abdul Raziq Kakar!





Posted in Allgemein | Leave a comment

Banjaras, Bullocks and Biocultural Protocols

Rajabai Banjara exressed deep concern about the future of her cattle herd.

Rajabai Banjara exressed deep concern about the future of her cattle herd.

Women are the (often) invisible guardians of livestock biodiversity. This was once again confirmed during a recent fieldtrip to central Maharashtra at the occassion of the Malegaon Livestock Fair. Sajal Kulkarni of BAIF and the Maharashtra Gene Bank Programme had invited animal geneticist Dr. Chanda Nimbkar of Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute and me to see his work with documenting Maharashtra’s indigenous livetsock breeds.

Red Kandhari bullock cart

Lal Kandhari bullock pairs are essential for transportation of agricultural harvest, as well as a source of pride for their owners.

The Lal Kandhari cattle is the dominant breed in the area and, according to Sajal, it is Banjara women who have the most intimate knowledge of breeding it. The Banjara are one of India’s most famous nomadic tribes. Also known as Lambadis, they were once – during the time of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal era – responsible for the transportation of goods, especially grain and salt, throughout India. They represented a guild of caravaneers that could organise 10,000 and more bullocks to convey goods over distances over 2000 miles, and were especially in demand to accompany and provide grains for the armies that invaded the Deccan.

It was new to me that the Banjaras are also breeders of cattle, especially the Red (Lal) Kandhari, in this part of India. At the Banjara tunda (settlement) that we visited near the town of Kandhar, the Banjaras mused that they had brought the original stock from Rajasthan, and by crossing it with local animals, had created the Red Kandhari. The women emphasized that they never sold cows, only male calves. These are still very much in demand as draught animals as we could see at the weekly markets. The  price for a pair is around Rs 70,000-80,000, but can also be more.

Lal Kandhari pair

Pair of Lal Kandhari bullocks for sale at a weekly market.

Lal Kandhari cow

Lal Kandhari cow – what a multi-purpose animal, with a glistening coat and a very relaxed – if not drowsy – temper!

Additional demand is stimulated by shows and competitions at which significant prize money can be won. And the breed even seems to have dairy potential: we were told about a cow that gives 14 kg of milk per day.

But the situation of the Banjara cattle breeders is all but rosy. Due to the drought, they have to buy water by the tanker. Grazing land is in short supply, and the family land holdings that were once quite ample have declined from generation to generation. In his book “Subjugated nomads“, Bhangya Bhukiya describes how, during the colonial period, the Banjaras were classified as a criminal tribe due to their nomadic existence, while also being kicked out from forests and even so-called “wastelands”.

In the context of the Maharashtra Genebank programme, Sajal is developing a Biocultural Protocol for the Banjaras of the area and several other breeds or human/livestock associations. Certainly the area is full of genetic or biocultural treasures, including the

Osmanabadi goat

Osmanabadi goat bounty

Proud owner of an Osmanabadi doe with six living kids at the Malegaon Fair

Donkeys – in demand for bringing home the harvest from black soil fields during the rainy season. Apparently they are the only viable means of doing so, all other animals and machines get stuck or slip….

Donkey keeper

Four donkeys just purchased at Malegaon Fair for Rs 81,000


Deoni cattle

Deoni bullock on show at Malegaon fair

Deoni bullock on show at Malegaon Fair


Local poultry

Local poultry

Hunting dogs

Hunting hound

Establishing Biocultural Protocols for at least some of these breeds and their keepers will certainly be an important step towards their long-term conservation and sustainable use and I applaud the efforts by Sajal, the Maharashtra Gene Bank Programme and BAIF that they are making this effort!

Posted in Allgemein | Leave a comment

The Shepherds that Worship Wolves


I am currently visiting the shepherding communities of the Deccan Plateau to see how the efforts by our partner NGOs to develop a Biocultural Protocol are coming along. I have the best possible guides: Nilkanth Mama, a leader of the Kuruba shepherd community and Gopikrishna of Mitan Handicrafts who knows the area intimately.

We started in Bagalkot in Karnataka where veterinarian Dr. Bala Athani from the NGO Future Greens is supporting rural communities with access to credit and marketing, as well as animal health care and other services.

In this area two developments are noteworthy: The large number of people who have recently taken up shepherding and the fact that the traditional breed of the area, the Deccani sheep, has almost totally been supplanted by a breed called Yellaga.

The first shepherds we met belonged to the Valmyki community who are actually hunter-gatherers (and have the most amazing hunting dogs), but now herd sheep. They pen them overnight on farmers’ fields, and during the day graze them on the uncultivated hillocks to which they have free access (Forest Department is not interfering). The lambs are penned during the day and given all kinds of supplementary feed to make them grow fast. By the age of 3-4 months they are already sold, fetching about 4000 Rs on the local market – which supplies the big cities.

One of the interesting topics raised by these shepherds was the role of the wolf. They were concerned that the wolf had disappeared from the area and explained that on every new moon they worship the pen, the wolf and their goddess. When a wolf dies they make a burial for it. And when an infectious disease hits, they leave a lamb in the wilderness to the wolves believing that this will prevent the further spreading of the disease. Without the presence of wolves they felt they had less protection against epidemics. (A recent survey of the wolf population in Karnataka has confirmed the correlation between sheep and wolves, and that shepherds are not a threat to them.)

The Yellaga is a hair sheep breed that grows faster than the Deccani wool sheep and has the advantage of not needing to be shorn – a process that is not worthwhile these days when wool prices have hit rock bottom.

Yellaga hair sheep

The Yellaga hair sheep, a breed first mentioned by John Shortt in his “Manual of Indian Cattle and Sheep” in 1889, but not officially registered as a breed.

The only place where we actually found the traditional Deccani breed of sheep was the village of Honnakatti which is famous for fighting rams. These rams can be worth up to Rs 400,000 and get pampered with milk and eggs – actually one has to keep a buffalo to feed them, one of the owners told us.

Fighting ram of the traditional Deccani sheep breed

Fighting ram of the traditional Deccani sheep breed

Later, when visiting the temples of Pattadakal, a World Heritage site dating back to the Chalukiya period in the 8th century A.D., we were excited to come across a carving showing a ram fight, providing proof that this kind of amusement is more than 1200 years old. Striking was also the similarity to the present day rams with the long shaggy hairs on the front part of the body making them look like lions!

Depiction of a ram fight at Pattadakal from the 8th century A.D.

Depiction of a ram fight at Pattadakal from the 8th century A.D.

In the more fertile parts of Karnataka around Belgaon where the soil is black, the Yellaga has not made that much inroads and there are still some weavers who make the traditional kambli, the signature blanket of the Kuruba shepherd community.

Picture of Balumama, a shepherd who lived from 1892 to 1966 and is now worshipped as a folk deity. His is wearing the kambli, traditionally made from Deccani sheep wool over his shoulder

Picture of Balumama, a shepherd who lived from 1892 to 1966 and is now worshipped as a folk deity. He is wearing the “kambli”, an all-purpose woven cloth traditionally made from Deccani sheep wool, over his shoulder

While the kamblis used by shepherds today are increasingly made from acrylic, those used for the worship of the local God Beerappa (the first shepherd who was made by God Shiva and who is the ancestor of all Kuruba) definitely need to be made from wool.

Spinning the black wool that the Deccani sheep is famous for

Spinning the black wool that the Deccani sheep is famous for

Near Kolhapur in Maharashtra we also tracked down the sacred herds of Balumama, a shepherd who died in 1966 but is now worshiped as a folk deity for his services to the rural poor.

Balumama had given his 60 sheep to his community for care taking, and by now his small flock has grown to 25,000 head and is divided into 14 herds that are grazed by volunteers and welcomed by villagers wherever they go, because they are thought to bring good luck and it is an honour to host them. As Gopikrishna emphasized, this is real community conservation of a genetic resource!

The movable temple and vehicles accompanying the sacred herds.

The movable temple and vehicles accompanying the sacred herds.

The income from this herd has given rise to a huge temple complex where people come to worship from far and near. And these herds are entirely black, they are almost glowing with blackness if that is possible.

Well, all this may sound very spiritual to any non-Indians, so lets get back to hard core economics. My visit yesterday to the flock of Nilkanth Mama that is taken care of by his two sons and one grandson (part-time) taught me a lot.

Sheep flock of Nilkanth Mama, managed bis his two sons and grandson

Sheep flock of Nilkanth Mama, managed bis his two sons and grandson

The major income generated from this herd is actually from manure. The farmers pay 1 Rupee (or sometimes up to 2 Rupees) per sheep per night that the herds are penned on their fields. In Nilkanth Mama’s herd that amounts to 300 Rupees per night or 9000 Rs per month, an income not to be sneezed at in rural India! And imagine what this practice saves the nation in terms of chemical fertilizer! And how it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, considering that fertilizer production is one of the biggest culprit in climate change!

Finally, I was so happy to see how the pastoralist occupation continues into the next generation! It gave me a little hope for the future.

Penning can be even more lucrative than selling live animals.

Penning can be even more lucrative than selling live animals.

Posted in Allgemein | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Access and Benefit-Sharing, Allgemein, animal genetic resources, Biodiversity, FAO, food security, livestock keepers, Sustainability | 2 Comments