Ethical Camel Dairying

Camel milk is a gift of the DESERT, and it does not make ecological sense to produce it in industrial systems.

The current buzz around camel milk causes a rush of people to enter the emerging camel dairy sector in the belief that it is a lucrative business. This is not necessarily beneficial for camels – nor does it even generate the expected profits – as these new entrants automatically follow the model provided by cow dairies: they search for camels with the best possible yields, confine them somewhere, buy feed, and invest in a milking parlour, with the intent of maximising production. Such industrial scale camel dairies are springing up in oil-rich Arab countries and elsewhere.

Keeping them in confinement subverts the nature and biology of camels – long-legged creatures that have evolved in the most sparsely vegetated environments and are designed to cover huge distances daily to find enough forage to satisfy their nutritional needs under these frugal conditions. We know from the now almost forgotten studies conducted by German biologists Birgit Dörges and Jürgen Heuck in the 1980s and early 2000s, that feral camels in Australia routinely walk up to 70 km per day. Another adaptation of camels to a desert environment is their slow reproduction with a calving interval of two years in most places (it can be less in the Horn of Africa because of two rainy seasons). The camel’s digestive system is aimed at metabolizing extremely thorny, fibrous, salty plants and that is what these animals thrive on and where their ecological advantages lie: producing food in drylands, and without use of fertilizers and fossil fuels.

Camels in Kutch in India where forage plants are quite salty.

Coupled with their tolerance of high ambient temperatures, their ability to cope with droughts, and their congenial disposition, camels are evolution’s gift to humanity and a priceless asset in light of the record temperatures that the Earth is currently experiencing in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.

This year we are celebrating the International Year of Camelids, for which the FAO has picked the official slogan the heroes of deserts and highlands that nourish people and culture. Camelids are certainly remarkable, but even bigger heroes are the people that have been stewarding them for thousands of years in extremely inhospitable environments, who have adapted their ways of life to the needs of their camel herds, rather than dominating them.

It is from these societies that we can learn how to keep camels in a way that is basically ethical and long-term sustainable:

  • Good for camels by letting them move, keeping them in natural social settings without separating mothers and babies, allowing them to choose their own menus and an environment in which their senses are stimulated.
  • Good for people by securing livelihoods, producing healthy food, and not contributing to antimicrobial resistance.
  • Good for the environment by nurturing biological diversity, recycling nutrients, replenishing the soil and avoiding the pollution that confined livestock production is associated with.
The Raika are the traditional camel herding community of Rajasthan in India

Of course, pastoralists are not perfect, especially since they are under a lot of pressure in most locations, but their principles of raising camels are basically sound and ethical and the model to follow.

Learning from the Raika camel herding community in Rajasthan, the social enterprise Camel Charisma that I co-founded, is building on their hereditary principles, with some innovations. We support the traditional nomadic system, pay a decent sum to the herders for their milk, and make an effort to provide the most hygienic milk to our customers across India. You can learn about the rationale for the dairy in this official FAO video .

Standard Operating Procedures of Camel Charisma in Rajasthan (India)

There are other people and communities who have the same approach, for instance Khandaa Byamba and her family in Mongolia who keep Bactrian camels. Even in countries where camels were not traditionally kept, such as Australia, Europe and the USA, efforts are made to keep camels in a more natural, non-industrial way.

Mongolian camel herder and advocate for ethical camel keeping Khandaa Byambaa

Coming back to the on-going International Year of Camelids, its main aim should be to find ways of supporting camel pastoral systems, rather than just focusing on increasing productivity and efficiency. We need an approach that does not see camels in isolation, but in their social and environmental contexts.

The participants of the International Workshop on Camelid Pastoralism in January 2024

In January 2024, camel pastoralists from several countries met in India to exchange experiences and chart out their future work. In their workshop statement they ‘rejected the extractive model of animal production that was superimposed on many camelid-keeping countries in colonial times and is now leading to the capital-intensive industrialisation of camelid keeping, which depends on fossil fuels, chemical inputs and imported feed. At a time when greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced to prevent further global warming, fossil-fuel-free camelid development that is solar powered, makes optimal use of local resources and is in tune with planetary boundaries is the need of the hour’.

These are wise considerations and one hopes that the people, research institutions, donors that are involved with camels and development take them to heart.

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

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

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

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

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

Camel herders in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

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

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

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

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

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

(Dr. Sylvain Charlebois @foodprofessor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is pastoralism naturally ‘net zero’?

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

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