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.

World Biodiversity Day and Pastoralists

I am currently reading a fabulous (in the true sense of the word) book by Kelly Carew ‘Beastly. A new history of animals and us‘. In it she describes her revulsion as a child to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. The former was a farmer, the latter a shepherd and inexplicably God preferred the offering of Abel (a lamb) to those of Cain (harvested crops).

I am not a Biblical scholar, but from what I understand the name Abel is derived from ibl, the Arabic word for camel, and the name Cain was associated with metal forging and copper mining. According to one source :

The Biblical conflict between Cain and his brother Abel is an iconic story of the conflict created by the copper mining operations in the Negev. Copper was mined and smelted on site using local brushwood as fuel. The mining operations denuded the area where the Bedouin and caravan tribes grazed their goats and camels causing a conflict between the miners and the shepherding Bedouin and camel herders. The conflict is represented in the Cain and Abel saga in which Cain represented the mining interests and Abel represented Bedouin pastoralism as well as the caravan tribes in the frankincense trade.

If this interpretation is correct, then it is no wonder that God preferred the sheep- or camel herding Abel to the miner/farmer Cain. Because herding livestock is the one systematic way of food production that respects and does not structurally modify ‘God’s creation’ , i.e. the Earth’s natural biodiversity and replace it with monocultures (or sometimes polycultures). It is by far the most natural way of producing food, one whose only prerequisite is trust and good communication between humans and herd animals. It requires no fossil fuels, no pesticides or any other -cides, no fertilizer. It is a much more efficient way of protein production than factory farming and feedlotting – systems which consume more human edible protein than they generate although they are conjured up as necessary to feed the world.

As Keggie Carew eloquently and emotionally conveys in Beastly, we KNOW that industrial livestock faming serves as a n incubator for zoonotic diseases that can jump over to humans, and we also KNOW that replacing tropical rain forests with palm oil plantations and other mono-cultures exposes humans to new disease vectors. We are also realizing that the most effective way of stablizing the climate is by conserving biodiversity, and that these two environmental issues can not be disentangled.

We know all this, yet as an international community we are paralysed. We continue to pump carbon dioxide into the air, pour asphalt over the ground, and support and subsidize industrial and factory farming. Not that we are not concerned about ‘conservation’: At the last Conference of the Parties to the United Convention on Biodiversity held in Montreal in December 2022, the world agreed on conserving 30% of the earth’s land and sea through the establishment of protected areas (PAs) and other area-based conservation measures (OECMs).

Yet, this was a highly controversial target opposed by many indigenous peoples because ironically and tragically they are the ones who are prone to be affected negatively. It is in their ancestral territories that these conservation areas are likely to be established, because they most closely resemble nature.

The 30% target would be fine, if we now supported pastoralists and other indigenous peoples, to continue stewarding biodiversity. But Conservation with a big C has a bismal record with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples and it seems as if only affluent western wildlife agencies come out on top. Although ‘fortress conservation’ has become discredited, in practice it still predominates.

Look at the Raika camel and sheep/goat herders of Rajasthan – people who produce milk and meat in a humane and ethical way, while also stewarding the environment. They tolerate that leopards prey on their animals without taking retribution, ther herds support germination and regeneration of local acacia trees, while also providing organic manure. Yet these services go unrecognized and these genuine conservers of biodiversity are regarded as threat to conservation and have lost their long-standing grazing rights in places such as the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary.

No wonder few young people want to continue in this profession which combines food production wth environmental services.

Reinstating the rights of pastoralists to their ancestral territories and prioritizing them over mining and other interests would go a long way towards saving both biodiversity and limiting climate change. It would be a measure that does not cost anything and have many positive social percussions as well. But, alas, at the moment I do not know of any single country where this is happening (although I would love to be told that I am wrong). Amazingly, the story of Cain and Abel is still very relevant more than two thousand years later.