The camel is known popularly as the ship of the desert. But for all their resilience in the austere environs of the Thar desert, their numbers have plummeted in recent years. According to the 20th livestock census, released in 2019, there are some 2.5 lakh camels, down from the 4 lakh counted during the previous census in 2012. And this decline has environmentalists, policymakers and camel herders worried.
Rajasthan is home to 86% of India’s camels, and in this state, the raika is an indigenous pastoral community that has been rearing camels for generations. The raika believe they were created by Lord Shiva to attend to camels.
Herders’ increasing costs
The cost of maintaining camels has increased significantly. Herders today struggle to arrange for adequate fodder and veterinary care.
Traditional common property resources that served as the primary source for forage are in poor condition. Historically, indigenous species such as khejri, phog, ber, neem, babool, etc. were found in abundance in these lands, and they catered to camels’ needs. However, local agencies’ apathy towards these commons, and the recent reallocation of these grazing lands, reversed fortunes.
The department of animal husbandry of the Government of Rajasthan has set up 7,897 veterinary institutions comprising polyclinics, veterinary hospitals, veterinary dispensaries, sub-centres and district mobile veterinary units across the state. But all these institutions are stationary and serve villages in an 8 km radius. So lack of good last-mile veterinary services remains a problem. There aren’t many veterinary care workers either, nor an adequate supply of vaccines. So in spite of government schemes that guarantee free vaccines to herders, they still buy them from the market and self-administer them.
“The camels have been part of our heritage. Our arid region has witnessed many droughts, and arranging food for our families is a struggle,” Bachan Raika, a camel herder from Beethnok village, Bikaner district, said. “In those times, camel milk fulfilled the nutritional requirements of our people. It is a shame that now the cost of rearing camels has increased so much that my sons want to discontinue rearing them.”
Suraj Singh, a researcher at the Desert Resource Centre, a nonprofit organisation, has been working with camel herders and mapping gaps in input services. “In the last six months, I have personally interacted with more than 500 camel herders,” he said. “The underlying problem remains unaddressed – that these herders are able to barely earn an income from their camels. The only reason the raika community still rears camels is because they believe in the myth of being chosen by Lord Shiva.”
(Editor’s note: The author is a programme manager with the Desert Resource Centre.)
In the last few years, the government of Rajasthan has instituted a few stopgap policy measures.
In 2014, the government declared the camel to be the state animal. In 2015, it passed the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act prohibiting the slaughter, trade and unauthorised transportation of camels. This law severely impacted the sale of camels at popular animal fairs in Pushkar, Chadi and Balotra, and pulled down the revenues of camel herders.
In 2016, the government launched a scheme in which it promised to pay Rs 10,000 to camel herders for every calf born, in three instalments over the course of eighteen months. But herders complained that they only received the first instalment and seldom the other two. The state discontinued the scheme in 2018.
The state had developed these measures to improve the population of camels in the state but they backfired.
Traditionally, the camel was used as a pack animal in the desert. The advent of mechanised technologies like tractors and motorcycles put paid to this function, and camels were sidelined in the desert’s agro-economy. The absence of organised markets for camel milk and other camel-derived products, including fibres, skin and bone products, reduced camels’ utility further in the livelihoods of Thar’s people.
Camel milk still enjoys some traction in the domestic and international markets, thanks in part to the fluid’s nutritive properties. Studies by researchers at the National Research Centre on Camel, Bikaner, have found that camel milk possesses antioxidants and compounds beneficial in the treatment of bacterial, viral and fungal infections. Insulin in camel milk could also be effective towards improving long-term glycaemic control in diabetic patients.
In 2016, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India approved the sale and trade of camel milk as a food item with specific standards in 2016. “We had entered into the business of camel milk products five years ago, at a time when there was no organised market and supply chain for camel milk products,” Hitesh Rathi, a founder of Aadvik Foods, India’s first camel milk brand, said. “Today we are supplying many products, like camel milk powder, chocolates, soaps and skincare products, made from camel milk.”
Rathi is optimistic that the increasing number of enterprises selling camel-derived products could supplement the herders’ incomes and also stave off camels’ population decline.
“I still have a large herd of 70 camels. We have been hearing that the market for camel milk has [become better],” Mahadan Raika, a resident of Charanwala village whose ancestors were camel herders, said. “If the enterprises offer us an opportunity to earn a reasonable amount of income, I would be glad to maintain my herd, and who knows it might just increase their numbers.”
Across Rajasthan, camel herders have mobilised their resources to establish their own camel-milk enterprises. Three years ago, Sumer Singh Bhati had set up the Jaisalmer Camel Milk Dairy at the district’s headquarters. He maintains a herd of 400 camels and used to earn over Rs 2 lakh a month – until four months ago.
“My customers keep calling me to check when I will be able to reopen my dairy. But with the rising COVID-19 cases across the district, I don’t think it’s a good idea to jeopardise the safety of my family and, most importantly, my customers,” Bhati said. “For now, my kids are enjoying the kheer I prepare from camel milk.”
The plight of others like him is no different.
The rapid decline in the number of camels is worrisome – but simply reviving their population won’t help. If neither herders nor policymakers can find a way to reintegrate camels into the desert’s agro-ecosystem, they will continue to remain redundant, uneconomical and beasts that are a burden.
Aastha Maggu is a programme manager with the Desert Resource Centre, part of the Urmul Network, in Bikaner district, Rajasthan. The views expressed here are the author’s own.