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.

For ‘Livestock Transformation’ we need to transform Animal Science…and move away from ‘efficiency’ as sole guiding principle

The International Livestock Transformation Conference that took place at FAO Headquarters in Rome from 25-27th September provided plenty of fodder for thought. While it remained hazy which direction the transformation should take – except effecting better production, better nutrition, better environment and better lives – there were many good presentations and one could sense unease with the current thrust of livestock development, especially with respect to antimicrobial resistance and with animal welfare. There was a great presentation by Robyn Alders about the importance of smallholders and how to enhance their access to services and markets. It was also satisfying to see the prominence that was given to pastoralism. Hindou Oumaru Ibrahim of the Association of Indigenous Women and People of Tchad talked about the significance and practical applications of their traditional knowledge, while Mounir Louhaichi of ICARDA emphasized their role in sustainable land managment and that ‘it is not the cow, but the how’ that determines the environmental impact of livestock.

Then there was a noteworthy paper by IFAD’s Anne Mottet about ‘circularity’ with which I could not agree more. In her conclusions, she recommended better spatial distribution of livestock and even ‘leading animals to the resource’ which is basically an endorsement of pastoral systems that embrace both dispersal and mobility.

Circularity! This means reintegrating livestock with crop production to mimic as much as possible natural eco-systems in which herbivores cycle much of the nutrients they uptake from plants back into the soil. In practice, this entails sustaining animals on natural pastures or feeding them with crop by-products, rather than on especially grown feed requiring fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer. In such systems manure once again turns into a very valuable asset rather than the toxic burden it has become in concentrated animals feeding operations.

We must adopt circularity as one of the guiding principles for the design of sustainable livestock systems! It needs to replace the mantra of ‘efficiency’ which merely focuses on product output versus feed input, and ignores the fact that nutrients must be recycled by all means in order to avoid their depletion in the feed producing parts of the world and their toxic accummulation in the feed receiving countries. Arguably, the blinkered focus on efficiency is at the root of the current crisis of Dutch farming. While the Netherlands may have developed (one of) the most ‘efficient’ dairy farm systems in the world, this has also led to the unacceptable levels of nitrogen pollution in soil and water that have caused the current political crisis. They are a result of importing most feed from afar, as the Dutch Minister for Nature and Nitrogen Policy, Christianne van der Wal-Zeggelink pointed out.

In this context of transforming the livestock sector, a statement by 17 Civil Society organizations at the occasion of the upcoming International Year of Camelids 2024 is noteworthy. Besides calling for ‘Investing in decentralized infrastructure, such as networks of mini-diaries and local processing facilities1 to link camelid herders in remote areas to value chains, while also respecting and supporting our traditional ways of processing,for an alternative vision for the future of livestock, it also advocates for ‘Carving out an alternative, cruelty-free development trajectory for camelid herding that conforms to the worldview of traditional camelid communities and avoids industrialization‘.

Side-event on the International Year of Camelids

There was of also an official side-event on the International Year of Camelids 2024 that was chaired by the governments of Bolivia and Saudi-Arabia and in whichits visual identity was revealed. It had presentations by Mongolia, IFAD, and two genomics experts. Although the IFAD presentation informed about various projects involving camelid herders, communities themselves did not have a chance to speak. Hopefully they will be given a proper platform once the IYC has been officially inaugurated in December. Certainly much can be learned from them on how to best manage ‘the heroes of deserts and highlands’!

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.