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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its camel heaven at QCamel !

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Australian camels happy?


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

On the tracks of the Afghan cameleers

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

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

Mural at Marree Race Course

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

In the finish line at Marree Camel Races


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

Debi in her magical Camel Arts and Crafts tent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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?

“Local breeds only give, they don’t take” – Interview with Dra. Maria Rosa Lanari

Dra. Maria Rosa Lanari combing a Criollo goat

Recently I caught up with DraMaria Rosa Lanari, who coordinates the Genetic Resources Network of  Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), when she was on her way to the annual meeting of the EU funded  Project on Innovative Management of Animal Genetic Resources (IMAGE).  The project which has 28 partners from 17 countries has the aim of enhancing the use of genetic collections and  upgrading animal gene bank management.

Q. What is your motivation for participating in this Europe dominated project?

A. It to maintain contacts with other people working on the same issues and staying abreast of the latest developments in the field.

Q. Can you explain what the IMAGE project is about?

A. It focuses on ex-situ conservation, for instance looking into the problems of keeping adaptive characteristics alive. In Argentina, cryoconservation is not that well developed, we do not have the resources. Only a few local breeds are preserved that way. We putour emphasis on ex-situ in vivo and in situ conservation, meaning we keep goats, sheep, camelids and even bees in their natural ecological context.

Local breeds are really important in all the marginal areas where they are kept by small producers. This project provides us with some visibility for local breeds. We use the funds for capacity building of young people.

A young herder with Criollo goats – drawing by Maria Rosa Lanari

Q. You have worked in this field for around thirty years. What have been your major insights?

A. Thirty years ago I also thought that pastoralists are primitive and backwards. This was when I was fresh from university. But now I know different.

Q. Why do we need to conserve local livestock breeds?

The value of the local breeds lies in the fact that they do not cost anything but provide plenty, under challenging circumstances.It is a lie that the commercial breeds are always better. Everybody talks about what they provide and not what they take. They need good feed, shelter and veterinary care in order to be productive.

Q. Can you give us an example that illustrates the value of local breeds?

A. During the eruption of the Puyehue volcano we really saw the value of the local breeds. The volcano was active for six months and the ashes drifted into North Patagonia (Argentina). 70% of the animals of small holders died. So we helped the livestock keepers obtain new goats of the Criollo breed from Neuquen. It was a total success. The people were so happy and they are still happy. Before the volcano outbreak they had kept Angora goats which were not very fertile. Another example from our pampa region is with Criollo Cattle. One farmer told me “I got this cow from an altitude of 4000 meters and brought it to the lowlands. The first year we were flooded and the cow gave birth. The second year, we had a terrible drought, but the cow gave us another calf.”

Usually in emergency scenarios, aid agencies provide commercial breeds. But these animals are not a gift, they are  frequently a burden for the new owners.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about INTA’s plans for the near future with respect to local breeds?

A. Our goal is to make visible the advantages of these breeds in terms of cost and benefit of their remarkabletraits as disease or parasite resistance, resilience, adaptation, etc. we have to document and analyze the performance in integral way.We have to look the total system: environmental, social and economic drives are vital.

Another aim is to develop Biocultural Community Protocols to document some of our breeds and their co evolution and interactions with communities. Local breeds are kept by rural communities across the country. In addition to representing biological diversity these Animal Genetic Resources have a cultural and social context, and strong tie to traditional values. BCP allows making visible these significant attributes.

Thank you, Maria Rosa!

Community Protocols: “Giving livestock back its soul”

Workshop participants visit a flock of Red Maasai sheep and learn about the problems that their lady owner faces.

Recently I had the pleasure and privilege to participate in, and co-moderate, with my old friend Dr. Jacob Wanyama a workshop entitled “Making Access and Benefit-Sharing work for Africa’s Animal Genetic Resources”. It was organized by the African Union’s Interregional Bureau of Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) in Kenya and attended by about 40 participants drawn from three different groups:  National Coordinators for Animal Genetic Resources, National Focal Points for Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS) and leaders of breeders’ organizations.

The purpose of the workshop was to develop a roadmap for establishing Biocultural Community Protocols for six African transboundary breeds, Red Maasai sheep, Dorper sheep, Muturu cattle, Azawak cattle, Kuri cattle, and the D’Man sheep.

An important part of the workshop was to inform about the rationale for Livestock Keepers’ Rights, a concept developed by civil society in the run up to the First International Conference on Animal Genetic Resources held in Interlaken in 2007, more than 10 years ago.

The second major aim was to learn how to develop Community Protocols, also known as Biocultural Protocols (BCPs). Community Protocols are a tool enshrined in the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to ensure that benefits from genetic resources trickle down to the communities who have created and steward themThey are supposed to reflect and put on record the perceptions, traditional knowlede and preferences of the community in its own words. Therefore they are entirely different from the “breed descriptors” that AnGR experts are familiar with. To get this deviation from the “scientific” approach across is not that easy, but I was extremely gratified when a lady herder from Tchad expressed her takeaway as “Community protocols are about putting the soul back into livestock”. I think that was beautifully put!

The table below spells out some of the differences between a Community Protocol and a Breed Descriptor.

Difference between Community Protocol and Breed Descriptor

Breed Descriptor Community Protocol
What is documented ? A breed A biodiverse production system, including people/culture, livestock, environment
Focus is on Physical and production characteristics Traditional knowledge about breeding and biological diversity of feed/forage and medicinal plants
Type of documentation Measurements of body parts and production outputs, usually under controlled (research institute or government farm) conditions Perceptions about special characteristics of the breed, its value compared to other breeds, folklore, local stories
Who documents? Scientist/Geneticist Community, possibly facilitated by NGO
Purpose To obtain scientific description and record of a country’s animal genetic resources To claim community ownership over a breed and identify/put on record the pressures on a breed and the prerequisites for its conservation and continued sustainable use.
Relevance to Access and Benefit-Sharing none yes
Description of threats and opportunities no yes
Information about conservation needs no yes

Keeping livestock these days is a challenging task that requires passion in order to hang on to it instead of looking for an alternative livelihood. That was again beautifully illustrated on the last day of the workshop when we went on a fieldtrip to visit a Maasai lady keeping a flock of several hundred almost totally pure Red Maasai sheep. She shared her trials and tribulations with us. Her biggest problem was theft: sometimes gangs would drive up in SUVs and stuff as many sheep as they could into them. Another threat was from leopards who would sometimes go on a rampage among the flock. But throughout the dialogue with her what really shone through was her love and passion for her animals. Each of them had a name. Like all good pastoralists she knew exactly how each animal was related to any other in the flock. This was incomprehensible to some of the scientists who urged her to keep written records.

All in all, it is encouraging that AU-IBAR has adopted the BCP idea. So glad that Africa is taking the global lead in this! But Argentina is also gearing up, as you will see in an upcoming interview with Dra Maria Rosa Lanari who is the agrobiodiversity coordinator of INTA, Argentina’s agricultural research institute.

Pastoralists and India’s Biological Diversity Act

The beautiful Dangi cattle from Maharashtra that sustains on biodiversity and crop after math is an example for a breed that should be protected by a Biocultural Community Protocol

An important group of “stakeholders” in India’s biodiversity falls through the gaps of the country’s Biodiversity Act and requires a special tool to document their knowledge and the genetic resources they steward.

India’s biodiversity management strategy and action plan rests on Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) –  village level institutions tasked with establishing local Peoples’ Biodiversity Registers (PBRs) that document local biological diversity, including wild flora and fauna, as well as traditional knowledge, especially about medicinal plants.

But a crucial group of biodiversity guardians, together with a significant slice of biodiversity, falls through the gaps of this system: nomadic pastoralists and the livestock breeds they have created over centuries. Moving around in the spaces between villages, they are major producers of food without cultivating the soil, while at the same time conserving and adding value to biodiversity.

India (still) has a large number of pastoralists who migrate with their herds and flocks between different locations – sometimes far apart – utilizing natural vegetation and crop aftermath to support a major part of India’s livestock population. They perform something remarkable:  systematically producing food WITHOUT tilling the soil and WITHOUT replacing bio-diverse natural vegetation with monocultures of crops.  In order to achieve this miracle feat, they have developed, and depend on, domestic animal biodiversity – breeds of livestock that are highly mobile and convert biodiverse vegetation into high value protein.

These people are the holders of immense bodies of  traditional knowledge – about the medicinal uses of plants, about the habits of wildlife, about the effect of plants on animal health, about the interrelationship between them.  In short, they are privy to holistic ecological knowledge that is still our best bet in the practical management of eco-systems and vastly superior to the atomized perspective of scientists who tend to focus on minute aspects and often fail to see the forest for the trees.

Being nomadic, these people who are crucial  for biodiversity conservation as well as India’s present and future food security, usually fall outside the scope of the village BMCs, even of state biodiversity boards, as they routinely wander between different states. In order to record and do justice to their role in biodiversity conservation and to ensure their rights as “Keepers of Genes” , a tailor made approach is required – an approach that captures the fact that they are mobile social groups roaming  over different geographical zones of the country together with  specific livestock breeds that they continuously adapt to changing ecological and economic scenarios.

A group of NGOs working with pastoralists in different parts of India has developed such a tool that is known as “Biocultural Community Protocol” . It corresponds to the “community protocols” that India – and other countries – are mandated to establish by an international legal convention: the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits arising from their utilization. Already a corpus of such BCPs has been developed by pastoralist groups, including the Raika , the Kutchi camel breeders , Rajasthan’s camel breeders   and the Bargur Hill Cattle Breeders . Various others are in progress, covering a significant part of India’s biodiversity.

So far they have not been recognized nor even acknowledged by India’s National Biodiversity Authority. The National Biodiversity Authority may to some extent be aware of the role of pastoralists as stewards of biodiversity as it has been supporting the annual Breed Saviour Awards  promoted by the NGO SEVA.  But these awards are given to individuals, not communities and represent a one-time reward, they do not imply any rights over animal genetic resources as envisioned by the Nagoya Protocol. BCPs would fill this gap and explicitly recognize what these communities do for India – producing food in marginal areas and from crop by-products, manuring fields with organic fertilizer, often supporting wildlife, and providing various other ecological services such as dispersing seeds.

As of 17th July, 2017, 62,502 BMCs had been established in India, covering less than 10% of the country’s 650244 villages. These are very unequally distributed, with some states such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh having tens of thousands while a state like Rajasthan only has less than one hundred. This difference is because of the presence of NGOs in that have actively supported and built the capacities of communities to establish People’s Biodiversity Registers. Without NGOs as catalysts and facilitators, village people rarely have the motivation to establish BMCs. It is certainly worthwhile and immensely important to encourage village people, especially youths, to take an interest in the biodiversity around them and to value the traditional knowledge held by the older generations. But rural people are already occupied with a host of issues and are likely to take action only if some component of biodiversity that is crucial to their livelihoods is threatened.

Strategically it therefore makes more sense to aggregate biodiversity at a higher geographical level; acknowledging and supporting (Biocultural) Community Protocols for pastoralists would be an important step towards a more efficient and regional approach to biodiversity documentation and management then relying only on village based BMCs.

The importance of  Community Protocols will really come to the fore if and when international interest in livestock breeds that are adapted to challenging environmental conditions increases. In times of climate change, this may be sooner rather than later. Already there is a case of Access and Benefit-Sharing with respect to an Indian livestock breed. In 2012, Brasif, a Brazilian agribusiness investor, applied to the National Biodiversity Authority of India for access to 4,000 cattle embryos from Gir and Kankrej breeds. The embryos were supplied by a Trust in Bhavnagar in Gujarat. In 2015, the expert committee on access and benefit sharing of the National Biodiversity Authority set a price of INR 12 million (USD 190,000) which was paid by BRASIF. But apparently the National Biodiversity Authority is unsure who is entitled to receive this money, as it wants to benefit the creators of the breeds. IF A Community Protocol existed, the decision would be much easier.

Such issues are currently also discussed at the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at the FAO in Rome. But Africa seems to be taking the lead in pushing for Biocultural Community Protocols, as I will report in my next blog post!

Livestock: The good, the bad, the ugly!

In order to remain healthy, livestock needs to be able to move around. In order to be happy, animals should be kept in family groups. Pastoralists know how to do this.

The trouble for livestock started with the publication in 2006 of  “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, the FAO’s detailed study of this sector’s startling environmental impact, identifying it as a major culprit in climate change, besides polluting rivers, oceans, groundwater and the atmosphere, as well as wiping out biodiversity. These widely broadcast results caught the imagination of both the media and the general public. The automobile industry suddenly compared its emissions to that of “farting cows” and prided itself on being better for the environment than the beef industry.

One of the unintended consequences of this game-changing analysis was the wariness of donors to fund any livestock related development projects. It resulted in a dearth of funding for animal husbandry – which suddenly seemed to have become almost a toxic word. Over the years, this scenario precipitated several damage control initiatives, for example the Global Agenda on Sustainable Livestock (GASL), a multi-stakeholder platform anchored by the FAO to lead to “practice change” towards more sustainable livestock, and the Global Livestock Advocacy for Development (GLAD), a project of ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute. These initiatives are somewhat in an overcompensation mode: while they rightly emphasize the many beneficial effects of livestock especially in poorer parts of the world as source of livelihoods and nutrition, their blanket endorsement of livestock obfuscates a crucial point: livestock can be both “good” and “bad”, and its impact is entirely dependent on us humans and how we manage our farm animals.

It is quite simple: If we keep livestock in a way that it mirrors nature and imitates the herds of wild herbivores that once created the world’s most fertile soils , then its impact is positive. If animals are kept moving, are deployed to convert roughage or waste into protein, raised in family groups contributing to their well-being, then this is an ideal situation. It is the model of livestock keeping exemplified by nomadic pastoralists.

The situation changes when livestock no longer moves around and forages on its own but is fed with especially grown fodder. Although this is the standard that most of us have grown up with, it is  already much less desirable! For one, living creatures that get no exercise and are totally stall-fed cannot really be healthy, as we know from ourselves. Furthermore, it costs fossil fuels to grow and transport the feed and it is usually no longer possible for animals to be in a herd – they are separated  by sex and age. Still, from an environmental and farming perspective, such systems are essential and acceptable as long as livestock remains integrated with crop cultivation, its manure is fed back into the local soils, and animals have the opportunity to exercise.

But it gets really ugly when we intensify this system in order to maximize output, confine and isolate animals, keep them in huge numbers for the sake of “efficiency” and profit, pay no heed to their social needs. We not only turn living beings into processing machines, we have to bring the feed from very far away (other continents), amass the excreta (which have turned from valuable organic manure into a toxic pollutant), dispense antibiotics to suppress diseases, add some hormones to make production even more “efficient”. And then – surprise, surprise – we have to deal with antibiotic resistance, animal rightists, tasteless food, stench in the air, rural poverty, what have you not.

Initiatives such as GASL and GLAD that aim to make livestock more sustainable, or give it a better press, are welcome – but they need to be brave enough to spell out under which conditions livestock is good, bad, and ugly. They should not excuse the ugly systems because they are supposedly “efficient” and necessary to feed the world (which they are not). They need to revisit the efficiency paradigm that they adhere to because efficiency can have many negative side-effects and undermine sustainability.

They must read the writing on the wall: the steep rise in vegetarians and vegans, the fact that supermarket and fast food chains are now the ones pushing for better animal welfare standards, the amount of funding going into developing artificial meat. In such a global scenario, blanket endorsements of livestock are no longer credible. Instead, a more differentiated approach is the need of the hour, even if it alienates some of the stakeholders in the livestock sector. If we try to please everybody, we end up without profile and impact, and will not make progress towards our goal of livestock sector sustainability.

Pastoralists of the World, speak up – and prepare your Biocultural Community Protocols!

October November 2008 134
Pastoralism has many times been declared as outmoded and about to disappear. But the world needs pastoralists, so what to do?

It is often said – and given as a reason for disparaging pastoralism – that young people do not want to become pastoralists. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, that is often the case. Pastoralism is hard work, and in the absence of pro-pastoralist policies while populations grow, it is coming  under increasing pressure and in conflict with farmers, roads and urban sprawl. To make matters worse, school education seems to be at odds with herding culture, projecting it as backwards and instilling a sense of disdain of this way of life. This in turn is a consequence of government determined curricula – and we know that hardly any government appreciates pastoralism.

However, the opposite is also true: there are young people that do want to be pastoralists. In developing countries, the motivation may be the absence of better options for making a livelihood. In Rajasthan, I frequently come across young pastoralists who have tried out urban existences but decided that they preferred the independence of pastoralism, despite all the associated hassles. In developed countries, this can also be observed – spending summers up in the Alps looking after goats or cattle and making cheese is quite an attractive proposition for many. Then there are urban shepherds or conservation shepherds who make a living from payments for ecological services or keeping urban lawns short. Or read the bestselling book “A Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks, an ode to centuries of rootedness in England’s Lake District.

Raika from Rajasthan meet a Swiss goat herd spending the summer in the Alps - during the First International "Interlaken" Conference on Animal Genetic Resources, September 2007
Raika from Rajasthan meet a Swiss goat herd spending the summer in the Alps – during the First International “Interlaken” Conference on Animal Genetic Resources, September 2007

The world needs pastoralistst, and without pastoralism many countries would starve, especially those with large proportions of uncultivable land. So why is this role of pastoralism not recognized by governments? Why do they not put in place policies that protect pastoralists and make their lives easier, instead of squeezing them out?

I have come to the conclusion that this is because pastoralism operates according to different principles than the animal science based kind of livestock production. Scientific livestock production works under controlled conditions, where everything is predictable – except outbreaks of diseases and prices.  There are standardized genetics, standardized feeds, standardized houses and the goal is to maximize output. By contrast pastoralism goes with the flow, it uses the resources that are available and it recycles nutrients into the soil. Pastoralists provide organic fertilizer, they steward livestock genetic diversity, they maintain wild biodiversity. They are usually pleasing to look at while the other type of livestock production has to be secured behind closed doors because people get upset about it.

Belgao Kuruma 180
Pastoralists, such as these Kuruba on India’s Deccan Plateau go with the flow- wherever there are resources available – and make an important contribution to recycling nutrients, producing organic manure. The problems of industrial livestock production – excess of nutrients accummulating in groundwater – are avoided.


So how to change the mind of policy makers about pastoralists? Well, the only way to do this is to demonstrate and make visible the enormous contributions pastoralists make in terms of food security, biodiversity conservation, and – at least in South Asia – organic fertilizer production. Scientific papers have made a stab at depicting this in numbers, but which policy maker reads them? I believe the most effective way of all is if pastoralist groups or communities  themselves record and document what they do for humanity by making use of a tool called Biocultural Community Protocol. Community Protocols are a legal instrument under the  Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a legal framework that practically all governments of the world are a party to. The Nagoya Protocol  commits countries to support communities  to develop protocols in which they state under which conditions they would grant access to their genetic resources and traditional knowledge. Now, such “access” can only be provided if these genetic resources (i.e. livestock breeds) and associated knowledge still exist – and without pastoralists managing them in-situ, they certainly will disappear. Ergo, this is the credo of my organization, the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development (LPP) , Community Protocols are a means for pastoralists to firstly describe the resources they manage and secondly to stae te conditions under which they are able and willing to continue this important role for humanity.

Already, more than a dozen of pastoralist communities have developed BCPs, most of them in India, but also in Pakistan, in Kenya, and soon to come in Niger and in Argentina.  The more BCPs, the more powerful and difficult to ignore they will become. In September, LPP is organizing a workshop to streamline the metod and process of BCPs, while in late September the Woodaabe of Niger will embark on developing their BCP, using innovative mobile technology. One of these days, governments, international organizations and livestock scientists will listen!

Developing a Biocultural Community Protocol is a community-led process. It provides pastoralists to claim their rights and gives governments the opportunity to the value of their pastoralists.

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!


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!