Why are the camel herds of Rajasthan in crisis?
Rajasthan’s camel population hovered at around 10 lakh (1,000,000) head until the mid 1990s. There was good demand for draft camels, so the herders earned good income.
But the extension of the Indira Gandhi canal (IGN) removed some of the prime camel grazing areas, as did some of the forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. The nutritional status of camel herds worsened, they became prone to disease and to miscarriages, and the population began to fall.
By the end of the 1990s, the market for draft camels was in decline. There were roads even in isolated areas and motorized transport became widely available. Even the Border Security Force no longer purchased as many camels.
In 2001, it became known that some of the camels sold at Pushkar Fair went for meat and were even being smuggled across borders or to Bangladesh. Few wanted to speak of it because it was such a break with cultural traditions. When the Raika sent a letter to the District Collector and to other government departments, they met only with disbelief or disinterest. Raika leaders sent letters and campaigned for years. LPPS led a camel yatra in 2004. Experts at the National Research Centre on Camel consistently highlighted the issues behind the population decline.
Camel breeders and herders have been calling for a ban on the slaughter of female camels since 2001
Over the years, the situation got worse. The number of buyers for meat increased. Most used intermediaries or said they were buying for transport. There was increasing demand for camel meat from the Gulf countries. The meat traders took over most of the market, not only in Pushkar, but also at Nagaur and Tilwara Fairs, pushing other buyers out.
The prices for female camels rose for a time because there was hope that a market for camel milk would develop. But this never took off, and as breeders came under increasing economic pressure they began to go out of business.
Breeders who are reluctant to sell their young camels for meat have had little income for several years. Breeders' Associations have been excluded from the discussions about how to save the camel. Since the Camel Bill was announced, with little prospect of sales at Pushkar and other fairs, some breeders had become desperate. The traffic of camels across Rajasthan’s borders has not decreased.
Unless some of Rajasthan's breeding herds are able to survive, camel numbers can only continue to fall.
The Camel Bill came as a shock to camel keeping communities. Camel keepers had been left out of the process. With the exception of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, few politicians had even listened. Officials had spoken of camel mafias and illegal migration rather than support for the pastoralist communities who breed and care for Rajasthan's camels, part of the state's unique cultural heritage.
Camel breeders were losing hope for the future. But then the government listened. And the outlook is beginning to change.
The experiences of the past year have shown that camel breeders can quickly recover and reverse the trend as soon as they have a good income from camel milk sales.
Over recent months the success of the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy, a pilot camel dairy project, has shown that with appropriate investment and support, and training and development at local level, camel dairy can provide a sound basis for maintaining a sustainable camel population as part of the rural economy.